Bees under threat from bumblebee imports

Here in Britain, some market gardeners and amateur gardeners import bumblebees to pollinate crops. Some of them are bringing in bee diseases. Scientists funded by the Natural Environment Research Council say that this may be killing our wild buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terretris). It may be killing our domesticated honeybees (Apis mellifera) too.

Pollinators are reared commercially in parts of continental Europe. Most of the imported pollinators are B. terrestris. So what’s the problem? Here’s what NERC says about it.

The problem is that although there’s a subspecies called B. terrestris audax which is native here, only about a quarter of the imported bumblers are audax. The others are non-natives called B. terrestris dalmatinus and the confusingly named B. terrestris terrestris. Importers need licences from Natural England to import dalmatinus and terrestris. Those bees are screened for diseases. Importers don’t need a licence to import audax.

That system sounds all right, doesn’t it? But the NERC-funded scientists found that the rules aren’t enforced very well. They found imported bumblebees, of all three subspecies, carrying pathogens (organisms that can cause disease).

The pathogens that these scientists saw getting past the official screens were the three main protozoan (single-celled animal) parasites of bumblebees (Crithidia bombi, Nosema bombi and Apicystis bombi), three honeybee pathogens (another protozoan called Nosema apis, a fungus called Ascosphaera apis and a bacterium called Paenibacillus), and two pathogens which infect both bumblebees and honeybees (another protozoan called Nosema ceranae and deformed wing virus).

‘The study argues that producers need to improve disease screening and develop a parasite-free diet for their bees, while regulatory authorities need to strengthen measures to prevent importation of parasite-carrying bumblebee colonies, including checking bees on arrival in the UK and extending regulations to cover imported colonies of the native subspecies.’

I’m glad that we in Europe can now look forward to a two-year pause in the use of the insect-killers called neonicotinoids. But that’s not the whole story. Apart from the neonic ban being far too short-lived (like, it’s not a permanent ban), it doesn’t tackle some of the other factors which may be killing our bees. Factors like another insecticide called fipronil and other kinds of pollution. Factors like imported bee diseases.


About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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