Bumblebees For Sale?

If you are thinking of purchasing a box of bumblebees for your garden, please read this first.

There are commercially reared bumblebees for sale not only available to farmers and growers, but also for gardeners. These days, in the UK for example, one can sometimes see boxes of bumblebees for sale in advertisements in gardening magazines and you can buy bumblebees from on-line stores.  

Research has shown commercially reared bumblebees may be contaminated with contagious viruses and diseases

In a study: The Trojan hives: pollinator pathogens, imported and distributed in bumblebee colonies by Peter Graystock et al, (publ. Jul 2013, Journal of Applied Ecology)(1); scientists found that bumblebees reared for commercial sale in many cases, were carrying pathogens.

In summary:


  1. Scientists used molecular methods  to examine the occurrence of parasites in bumblebee colonies that were commercially produced in 2011 and 2012 by three producers. They then used controlled experiments to determine whether any parasites present were infectious.

  2. They found that 77% of the commercially produced bumblebee colonies from the three producers, which were imported on the basis of being free of parasites, in fact carried microbial parasites, with five different parasites being detected across the total sample of bumblebees, and a further three in the pollen supplied with the colonies as food. 

    Their experiments demonstrated that at least three of these parasites were infectious to bumblebees with significant negative effects on their health. Furthermore, at least four of the parasites carried by commercially produced bumblebees were infectious to honeybees, indicating that they may pose a risk to other pollinators as well.
  3. Over a million commercially produced bumblebee colonies are imported annually on a global scale for the pollination of greenhouse crops. After importation, they interact with other pollinators, with an associated risk of any parasites they carry infecting and harming native bees.
  4. They conclude:  The results demonstrate that commercially produced bumblebee colonies carry multiple, infectious parasites that pose a significant risk to other native and managed pollinators. More effective disease detection and management strategies are urgently needed to reduce the pathogen spillover threat from commercially produced bumblebees.

This begs the question:

Are the bumblebees for sale in garden centres, in magazines, and available on line, potentially already infected with diseases that put wild species at risk?

National and supranational regulations are supposed to prevent this, and commercially produced bumblebee colonies are accordingly, now often sold and imported as being parasite-free, but it's looking like the system is not working.

Further comment on the study by the University of Leeds states:

“The team bought 48 colonies of buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) from three European producers. Some colonies were a subspecies native to the UK and others were non-native. All were meant to be disease-free, but when they were tested using DNA technology, 77% of the colonies were found to be carrying parasites. Parasites were also found in the pollen food supplied with the bees.........

.....The results suggest current regulations and protocols governing bumblebee imports are not effective. Currently, Natural England licences are only required for the non-native subspecies. Although the licences require colonies to be disease free, colonies arriving in the UK are not screened to ensure compliance and the regulations do not apply to imports of the native subspecies."(2)

To an extent, the findings of this study are perhaps no surprise, given the results of a study back in 2010, carried out by the Department of Entomology, The Pennsylvania State, USA.....





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“Lead author of the study, Peter Graystock of the University of Leeds’ Faculty of Biological Science said: “We found that commercially-produced bumblebee colonies contained a variety of microbial parasites, which were infectious and harmful not only to other bumblebees, but also to honeybees.”(2)

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