Fearless biosecurity officer battling bees and crocodiles on the front line of northern Australia


She’s the straight-talking, tough-as-nails beekeeper on the front line of defence when it comes to protecting Australia’s northern shores.

Vicki Simlesa is quite simply the most important beekeeper in the Northern Territory.

She is in the midst of carving a large piece of dripping honey from a hive mat, covered head to toe in space-suit-looking white garb.

She is also dripping her own share of liquid, with the temperature inside her protective suit sitting about 50 degrees Celsius on this hot day in Darwin.

Ms Simlesa sweats in her beekeeping suit during Darwin’s scorching summer.(ABC Landline: Kristy O’Brien)

Ms Simlesa came to the NT initially working with crocodiles in the Department of Primary Industries, with a knack for doing jobs nobody else wanted.

“I thought my job was going to be with fluffy little rabbits and puppy dogs,” she said.

“Bees are only half of what I do, crocodiles is another half of what I do.

A gloved hand holds a tray from a beehive, with bees all over it.
Ms Simlesa doesn’t shy away from the dangers of her job.(ABC Landline: Kristy O’Brien)

But it has cost her.

She nearly died after getting attacked and bitten by a crocodile in a moment of complacency, and was hospitalised for six weeks as nasty infections from the bite took hold.

“I’d been working since 6 o’clock in the morning and at 10pm I switched off and that was my mistake,” she said.

“It wasn’t so much the wound, it was the infection from the mouth, the amount of deadly bacteria in there, and it smelt pretty bad.”

Three signs explaining bee biosecurity hand on a fence, as someone in a bee suit works behind.
They may be much smaller than crocodiles, but bees can still pack a deadly punch.(ABC Landline: Kristy O’Brien)

From giant jaws to deadly stingers

Ms Simlesa now predominately focuses on the smaller but still deadly field of bees.

She remembers her first day on the job, and the fairly typical Territory approach from her then-boss.

“I rocked up and he was wearing stubbies, a pair of thongs and no veil or any sort of protection, and that made me feel really good because then it made me realise you can be quite calm and peaceful around bees,” she said.

A woman in beekeeping garb holds a sheet of newspaper and leans over beehives.
Ms Simlesa has to keep herself well covered when handling hives.(ABC Landline: Kristy O’Brien)

Relaxed it may be, but the gravitas of her role cannot be underestimated.

Ms Simlesa oversees the northern region for the national surveillance program throughout Australia.

She must regularly check strategically placed hives around Darwin’s port and shores, looking for outbreaks of exotic and endemic pests, and diseases of bees that could wipe out the country’s population.

The theory is that a detection in the north early on could halt the spread to the rest of the country and major agricultural areas.

So far it seems to have worked.

Gloved hands handle a wooden tray covered in bees.
Frequent checks on hive health helps to protect the country’s bee population.(ABC Landline: Kristy O’Brien)

“The Northern Territory is the cleanest place in Australia but it’s also the cleanest place in the world,” Ms Simlesa said.

“Australia is clean as far as varroa mite, tropilaelaps mite go, so we don’t have them.”

‘More stings than you care to remember’

Hive health can be monitored to reveal the presence of diseases, and checking samples for contaminants can reveal if there are issues with nearby crops.

It also means plenty of stings.

“I’ve had more stings than you care to remember, put myself in hospital a couple of times,” Ms Simlesa said.

“They say it’s supposed to be good for dementia and arthritis, so we’ll see what happens later on in life.”

A woman a white beekeeping suit and netted hat carefully funnels bees into a container using a sheet of newspaper.
Ms Simlesa conducts a test to determine whether pests are present in a hive.(ABC Landline: Kristy O’Brien)

Even if it’s occasional tough love from her bees, she’s developed a soft spot for them.

“I know when they are going to bite me; I know when they are going to sting me; I know when they are upset.

“Pretty much any animal is predictable — it’s humans you can’t predict.”

A close-up of bees clustered on a hive tray.
Bees are Ms Simlesa’s usual work colleagues.(ABC Landline: Kristy O’Brien)

She likes the solitude of her role.

“The greatest conversation is the one that comes out of my own mouth; I love working on my own,” she said.

Ms Simlesa also keeps her own bees, a hive that may soon get a lot more attention as she looks to hang up her bee suit and retire.

But she says she will never stop trying to promote the importance of this humble little creature to anyone who will listen, while lamenting how pesticides can kill them.

“It’s heartbreaking, but you’ve got to keep going,” she said.

A woman in beekeeping garb slots a tray into a wooden hive.
Ms Simlesa is trying to educate people about the importance of bees.(ABC Landline: Kristy O’Brien)

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



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