Foreign bees 'a threat to local species'

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Foreign bumblebees imported to pollinate plants in British commercial glass-houses could reduce natural populations if their use is not strictly controlled, a study shows.

Non-native bumblebees have escaped and survived to breed in Chile and Japan, and that may happen in Britain, says this week's New Scientist magazine.

The magazine reports a recent study in the Journal of Applied Ecology by Tom Ings of Queen Mary, University of London, trying to establish whether escaped commercial bees could survive in the UK.

"Unfortunately we found they could," said Mr Ings. His research found commercial colonies were better at foraging for nectar than native bees, and the commercial bees were consistently larger. They also produced more queens capable of founding new nests than did native colonies in the same environment. Worryingly, the most popular commercial subspecies, Bombus terrestris dalmatinus, a relation of Britain's buff-tailed bumblebee, not only created the largest colonies, but also set them up the most readily.

This could lead to aliens outcompeting native bumblebees, Mr Ings warned. "What I don't think many policy-makers realise is that these commercially used bees share many of the traits typically associated with invasive organisms," he said. "Their use has to be controlled."

Japan has imposed tough restrictions on bee imports. But many other countries, including the UK, US and Mexico, have yet to take action. Britain's bumblebee population is under severe pressure from decades of intensive farming, the demise of traditional hedgerows, hay meadows, chalk grassland and wildflowers, and the wide use of pesticides. Three of our 25 traditional species have already become extinct.

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