By Martin Cassidy
BBC NI consumer affairs correspondent
Honey bees are being attacked by the parasite nosema cerana
The emergence of a new parasite which originated in eastern honeybees is causing concern to local honey producers.
The nosema ceranae parasite attacks the bee's gut and can result in dysentery and death.
Some are describing the new parasite as the equivalent of bubonic plague in bees.
"This is a serious situation for beekeepers in Northern Ireland and if they don't take up arms against this, we will just have no bees," says Michael Young of the Institute of Beekeepers.
In some countries beekeepers are linking the nosema ceranae parasite with the collapse of entire colonies.
Archie Murchie of the Agri-Food Biosciences Institute says that because western honey bees haven't built up immunity over years, the disease is having a more severe effect.
"Adult bees are infected by ingesting spores, which germinate in the gut and infect the ventricular cells," he says.
The big problem is that the ability of bees to absorb nutrition, particularly protein, is impaired.
The weakened bees are in no fit state to leave the hive let alone gather pollen and nectar.
Worker bees are unable to keep the hive operating and high levels of mortality can soon result.
Scientists at the Agri-Food Biosciences Institute have already confirmed four local cases of the new nosema parasite.
One case has been in bees imported from the Republic, the other three from local colonies with no evidence of importation.
Bee colonies in Counties Antrim, Down and Londonderry have already been infected.
As soon as warmer weather arrives the risk of spread will increase as hungry bees begin foraging.
It's not the first time local beekeepers have faced such a threat.
The arrival of the varroa mite caused alarm and hive owners have had to adapt their husbandry to keep their stock clear of that parasite.
Similarly with the nosema ceranae parasite, good hygiene and bee husbandry are being seen as vital in helping bees meet the threat.
The spores of nosema ceranae though are hard to eradicate.
Archie Murchie says beekeepers are responding by replacing or scorching frames in infected hives.
Adult bees can be treated with antibiotics but such is the difficulty in eradicating the problem that repeated treatments may be necessary.
Scientists say there are no implications for honey quality and consumers but there may be precious little honey harvested this year unless the dreaded nosema ceranae parasite can be contained.