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University of Sussex research shows imports could be killing UK bees
Bee imports to the UK need stricter controls to prevent diseases spreading to native bumblebees and honeybees, scientists have warned.
The trade in bumblebees is widespread, with between 40,000 and 50,000 commercially-produced bumblebee colonies imported into the UK every year to help with crop pollination.
Now a study by researchers from the universities of Sussex, Leeds and Stirling – the first of its kind in the UK – has revealed parasites in more than three quarters of imported bumblebee colonies tested.
Professor William Hughes of the University of Sussex, co-author of the study, said: “If we don’t act, the risk is potentially tens of thousands of parasite- carrying bumblebee colonies may be imported into the UK each year, and hundreds of thousands worldwide.”
The team of scientists bought 48 colonies of buff-tailed bumblebees from three different European suppliers.
The bees were all supposed to be disease- free but when tested using DNA technology, 77% were found to be carrying parasites, which were also found in the pollen food supplied with the bees.
Following the screening, a series of controlled lab tests were carried out which found commercially-produced bumblebee colonies were capable of infecting other bees.
The results, published yesterday in the Journal of Applied Ecology, suggest current rules and regulations surrounding bumblebee imports are ineffective.
Professor Hughes said: “Many bee species are already showing significant population declines due to multiple factors.
“The introduction of more or new parasite infections will at a minimum exacerbate this, and could quite possibly directly drive declines.”
Under the current system, Natural England licences are only required for non-native subspecies.
The licences require imported colonies to be disease-free, but colonies arriving in the UK are not screened and the regulations do not apply to imports of the native subspecies.
Without stronger measures to prevent importation of parasite-carrying bumblebee colonies, the study indicates native colonies could be severely affected.
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