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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 August, 2003, 13:14 GMT 14:14 UK
Alien pest threatens honey bees
Small Hive Beetle, National Bee Unit
The beetle has distinctive antennae
Britain's honeybees are facing another serious threat to their survival.

Hives across the country are being routinely inspected for the small hive beetle that has devastated colonies in North America and Australia.

In a colony the beetle larvae multiply to huge numbers, eat young bees, ruin honey stores and wax comb and, if untreated, will completely destroy a hive.

The small hive beetle is not thought to be present in the UK yet but beekeepers fear it is only a matter of time before it reaches Britain.

Insect threat

Wild and domesticated honeybee colonies have suffered several infestations over the past decade that have severely depleted their numbers.

The Varroa destructor mite has done much of the damage and some beekeepers lost 70% of their colonies to the pest which gradually debilitates honey bees.

The mite has been held in check by careful use of chemical controls but its numbers could be set to surge again as it develops resistance to these measures.

Recently some colonies in Devon and Wales have been found to be harbouring mites that thrive even in the presence of the chemicals, called pyrethroids, that usually keep their numbers to manageable levels.

Now beekeepers are being warned to watch out for another potentially devastating pest.

Hive frame full of honey, Simon Fraser (SPL)
Small hive beetles can devastate honey crops
The small hive beetle, Aethina tumida, is native to Africa where it is a minor irritant to bees and their keepers.

However, in 1998 the small hive beetle was discovered in hives in Florida and has proved to be a much greater problem.

In the first two years of its presence the beetles destroyed more than 20,000 colonies.

The beetle has also been found in Manitoba, Canada and probably arrived there on beeswax exported from the US.

A similar accident may have helped the small hive beetle spread to New South Wales and Queensland in Australia where it was discovered in October 2002.

"At the current level of world commerce it is just a matter of time before small hive beetles are found in other countries," said Lawrence Cutts, a hive inspector for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Health problems

Mr Cutts said that the good news about the beetle was that it only tended to overwhelm colonies that were stressed or diseased before the bug took up residence.

He said colonies that had lost their queen, had worker bees laying eggs or were infected with European or American foulbrood were most at risk.

"Although most of these problems will eventually kill a colony, the small hive beetles do it faster and make a bigger mess to try to clean up," he said.

Healthy colonies should be able to tolerate small numbers of the beetles but these too will suffer if the beetle got a chance to grow to large numbers, he said.

Eggs are laid in masses on hive floor or in crevices
Larvae have spines on their backs
Larvae have three pairs of legs near the head not legs on each segment like wax moth grubs
Larvae are active in light and leave no silk behind unlike wax moth larvae
Adult beetles have distinctive clubbed antennae
Adults hide from the light
Adults are black in colour and have short wing cases
Britain's cooler climate could also help limit the chance that the beetle has to establish itself, he said.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the small hive beetle was not present in the UK at the moment.

But she added that regional bee inspectors now routinely look for the beetle during their regular checks on the hives of beekeepers around the country.

It is thought that Varroa mites were present in the UK for years before they began to be a serious problem and, if the beetle does arrive in Britain, Defra hopes to catch any outbreak long before it has a chance to spread.

Colonies sited near international freight and container terminals as well as civilian and military airports are thought to be most at risk.

Controls are already in place to stop the importing of colonies of bees, queens or packaged bees from Africa, America and Australia.

To try to stop it reaching the UK via another route controls are also in place on queens and bees imported from other countries to ensure they are free of the beetle before being sent to British beekeepers.

Britain's beekeepers are also being educated about how to spot the beetles and to report any suspicious signs to the National Bee Unit.

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