Will we need 'free range bees'? Captive bees can be dangerous for wild bees, study shows

CC BY-SA 3.0 wikimedia / Shawn Caza

Apiculture is great, but beware of unintended consequences!

Our little yellow and black friends are tremendously helpful to nature, pollinating countless plants while only asking for a little food in return. But bees are under attack, their numbers plummeting around the world because of pesticides and diseases... And now they might even be threatened - unintentionally - by some of the bees' best friends. Apiculturists raise bees for commercial purposes, making delicious honey and often renting out the services of their hives for pollination purposes. So far so good.

But it turns out that captive bees can cause problems for wild species. A team of researchers from the University of Exeter has published a study in the Journal of Applied Ecology that shows the potential for diseases to jump from commercial bees to insects in the wild (including other species, like bumble bees, wasps, ants and hoverflies.

This is likely because commercial bees are not always species that are native to where they are, and their genetic diversity might be lower, or at least of a different profile, than the wild species.

Several diseases of honey bee colonies are known. They include a parasite called the Varroa mite and a virus that leads to deformed wings, which has also been found in wild bumble bees. [...]

"Now these studies show how diseases can be transmitted between managed honey bees and commercial bumble bees, and could have potentially drastic impacts on the rest of our wild pollinators. "

A study last year on a sample of commercial bumble bee hives imported into the UK found 77% were contaminated with up to five different parasites, with a further three being found in the pollen that was brought in with them, she added.(source)

It's particularly important to avoid spreading diseases far from where they originate (from one continent to another, for example), because like with invasive species, diseases that have evolved somewhere else will face less resistance and can cause more damage in the organisms that haven't co-evolved with it.


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