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Honeybee parasite found in Scotland

15 February 2013, by Alex Peel

A parasite affecting honeybees has been spotted in Scotland for the first time, potentially posing a new threat to our battered bee population.

Honeybees

The new study, published in Parasitology Research, says the Nosema Ceranae parasite is already widespread in bee colonies throughout mainland Scotland.

The discovery adds to a growing picture of bee vulnerability, but scientists are keen to stress that we don't yet know how serious the threat posed by the parasite is.

'There are two possibilities,' says Dr Christopher Connolly of the University of Dundee, one of the study's authors. 'Either the parasite came in a long time ago and has gone unnoticed because it's fairly innocuous.'

'Or it has come in more recently, spread very rapidly and could be a more serious problem. At the moment it's an unknown threat.'

Bee populations around the world are collapsing under the weight of habitat change and disease. The EU recently proposed a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides after research suggested they may also be affecting bee numbers.

In the UK, two species of bumblebee have been declared extinct, and the number of managed honeybee colonies has fallen by more than half in 20 years.

'Bees are an important pollinator for us... they provide billions of pounds of pollination services to the world economy, and they're in trouble.'
Dr Christopher Connolly,
University of Dundee

Connolly thinks the dwindling variety of bee species, in an increasingly uniform world, leaves the honeybee more vulnerable to future challenges.

'The problem is globalisation,' he says. 'We have more or less the same species all over the world - there's very little variety - so if you get a problem, it is a global problem.'

Our increasingly joined-up world also allows diseases and parasites to spread more easily between borders and continents.

The consequences are not just ecological; bees also play a vital role in the global economy, pollinating the crops on which our agriculture depends.

'Bees are an important pollinator for us,' says Connolly. 'They provide billions of pounds of pollination services to the world economy, and they're in trouble.'

The UK team of researchers, supported by Natural Environment Research Council grants, worked with the Scottish Beekeepers Association to investigate 71 honeybee colonies throughout Scotland. They found the Nosema Ceranae parasite in 55.

Another well-known parasite, Nosema Apis, was found in 52 of the colonies, while 50 colonies showed signs of both.

Honey bee

The Apis variety is known to cause diarrhoea and sickness in honeybees, while the Ceranae strain appears to be symptomless.

But recent research has suggested that, over longer periods, the Ceranae parasite may disturb queen-bee laying patterns and honey production, eventually leading to population decline and colony collapse.

Connolly believes that more research is needed to understand the full effects of the parasite. But he is nevertheless concerned about the consequences of a recent EU ban on an antibiotic for treating Nosema infections.

The EU removed it from the market amid concerns about parasites building resistance to antibiotics. Connolly is anxious that the consequences for bee health are monitored.

'The EU have removed this antibiotic from the market and now there is no medication for Nosema infections. It could have a serious impact on beekeepers,' he says.

'The consequences for bee health need to be monitored. Science and policy need to be more in touch.'

The work was funded by the Insect Pollinators Initiative (IPI). The IPI supports projects aimed at researching the causes and consequences of threats to insect pollinators, informing the development of appropriate mitigation strategies.

It's a joint initiative between the Wellcome Trust, BBSRC, Defra, NERC and the Scottish Government, and is funded under the auspices of Living With Environmental Change.


Bollan KA, Hothersall JD, Moffat C, Durkacz J, Saranzewa N, Wright GA, Raine NE, Highet F, Connolly CN, The microsporidian parasites Nosema ceranae and Nosema apis are widespread in honeybee (Apis mellifera) colonies across Scotland, Parasitology Research, doi: 10.1007/s00436-012-3195-0

[This story was amended on 19 February to detail the source of funding for the study.]


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Your comments

Without the honey bees food production will go down which means more hungry people in the world. Researchers need to find a cure, quick!

Debra Tate, United States
Thursday, 21 February 2013 - 01:50

I have a big garden with lots of flowers that honey and bumble bees love but this year I have hardly seen a bee in the garden at all

Christine Blair, West lothian
Wednesday, 12 June 2013 - 15:36