Australia’s biosecurity regime is about to get a timely technological boost from an unlikely alliance.

Some young tech-savvy aerospace engineers have joined forces with one of Australia’s largest dairy companies.

They’ve created the Purple Hive Project, which is aimed at safeguarding Australia’s bee and honey industry from invasive and destructive pests.

Number one on the least-wanted list is Varroa destructor, a pinhead-sized, blood-sucking mite that has devastated hives around the globe.

Australia is the only inhabited continent still free of the pest. It’s in New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.

Two men in a laboratory holding purple boxes
Vignesh Murugan (left) and Joel Kuperholz, co-developers of the Purple Hive.(Landline: Tim Lee)

“It frightens us to a great degree,” said beekeeper Ian Cane. “Varroa mites have a devastating effect on bee health and their ability to pollinate food crops and produce honey around the world.”

Mr Cane believes it’s inevitable that varroa will reach our shores. So in recent months, he has been eagerly road-testing a high-tech purple device on his beehives in the tall eucalypt forests of Victoria’s East Gippsland region.

It’s purple because the colour is kind to a bee’s sense of sight, and looks like a letterbox attached to the front of a hive.

A beekeeper in full beekeeping gear
Victorian apiarist Alf Brugman from Upper Beaconsfield east of Melbourne has kept bees for 45 years.(Landline: Tim Lee)

The entry slot contains sophisticated surveillance equipment.

“It’s got two cameras, one top, one bottom,” explained co-developer Vignesh Murugan of the Melbourne-based Virmana Tech company.

“As a bee comes through the front slit we monitor the bees, take an image every second and detect whether varroa mite is there.”

Individual images of thousands of bees per hive are taken over the course of a day. That’s where artificial intelligence comes into play.

“So, we’ve invented the world’s fastest and smallest artificial intelligence that can see like humans,” said Dr Shivy Yohanandan, who works for the Australian branch of Xailient, a high-tech firm headquartered in Silicon Valley, California.

“So what’s happening here is we’ve trained AI to count bees and detect hitchhiking varroa mites.”

If the mite is detected, an alarm signal can be sent instantly to a device such as a mobile phone.

Two men stand in front of rock formations
Joel Kuperholz and Vignesh Murugan in Utah, USA, while competing in NASA’s rover challenge.(Supplied: Joel Kuperholz and Vignesh Murugan)

The inspiration for the Purple Hive owes much to the Red Planet.

In 2018, engineering students Joel Kuperholz and Vignesh Murugan were part of a team from Melbourne’s Monash University that won the chance to compete in the University Rover Challenge in Utah, USA. They excelled at their challenge of using robotics to build the first semi-autonomous Mars rover, and late last year the pair formed their own company.

“We found we had a great working relationship, so we decided to take that and apply it to the Australian agriculture sector,” said Mr Kuperholz.

“We both wanted to make a difference and help prevent the (varroa) mite getting into Australia.”

Varroa mite poster
This varroa identification chart was sent to registered beekeepers throughout Australia in 2012.(Matt Brann: ABC Rural)

Bega Cheese Limited’s involvement stems from its recent diversification from dairy products into table spreads.

In 2017, it bought the Vegemite brand and peanut butter from Kraft. This month, it launched into processing and selling Australian honey. Aware of the threat posed by pests such as varroa, it sought a high-tech safeguard.

“We identified a need and opportunity to leverage technology and innovation to protect the Australian bee industry,” said Bega’s Adam McNamara. “To make it easier for the monitoring of this mite.”

At present, quarantine inspectors conduct regular physical inspections of so-called ‘sentinel beehives’ placed at ports and other points of entry to Australia to detect if the mite has arrived.

“The current process for monitoring the Varroa destructor is painstakingly manual,” said Adam McNamara of Bega Cheese.

A man stands in front of a bee hive
Aris Petratos from the Victorian Apiarists’ Association is delighted by the Purple Hive project(Landline: Tim Lee)

“To the entry points of Australia, they are the biggest risk areas,” said Mr McNamara. “We’d like to establish a mesh network where a Purple Hive can be attached to any beehive around Australia.”

Apiarists are excited by the project. Aris Petratos of Victorian Apiarists’ Association believes it represents an enormous advance in biosecurity and the ever-present threat of varroa.

“If technology alerts you on your phone, you instantly know there’s a problem. You can go out and do something about it,” said Mr Patratos. “If it (the pest) is there for a month or a week or two weeks, it may already be too late.”

Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline at 12:30pm on Sunday, or on iview.