UK: Imported bumblebees pose parasite threat to native populations

UK scientists say that bumblebees imported into the country from continental Europe pose a threat to native British bee populations. The bees are brought into the country for essential pollination purposes - without them it would be impossible for Britain to produce, for example, the volumes of tomatoes it needs. However, the imported bees are said to carry dangerous pathogens that can be spread to wild bees.

Researchers have found that up to 77% of imported bees could be carriers of parasites. Lead researcher Prof William Hughes, of the University of Sussex, said commercial production and importation of bumblebees had been "going on for decades".

"Over a million colonies are imported globally - it's a huge trade. And a surprisingly large number of these are produced in factories, mainly in Eastern Europe."

"We sought to answer the big question of whether colonies that are being produced now have parasites and, if so, whether those parasites are actually infectious or harmful."

With his colleagues from the universities of Leeds and Stirling, the researcher set out to buy colonies "in exactly the same way a farmer would".

The team then screened the bees for parasite DNA.

"We found quite a number of parasites within the bees," Prof Hughes said.

The imported bumblebee colonies carried a range of parasites including the three main bumblebee parasites (Crithidia bombi, Nosema bombi and Apicystis bombi), three honeybee parasites (Nosema apis, Ascosphaera apis and Paenibacillus larvae), and two parasites that infect both bumblebees and honeybees (Nosema ceranae and deformed wing virus).

Current regulations are not effective in preventing import of the bees in question - and the pathogens they carry. This is because many of the imported colonies are descended from British bee populations - which are automatically passed for entry int the UK under current laws.

Prof Hughes said: "If we don't act, then the risk is that potentially tens of thousands of parasite-carrying bumblebee colonies may be imported into the UK each year, and hundreds of thousands worldwide.

"Many bee species are already showing significant population declines," he said.

"The introduction of more or new parasite infections will at a minimum exacerbate this, and could quite possibly directly drive declines."


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