Keepers of honey bees in Europe are on the alert as a deadly threat to beehives in the form of a small beetle is on the rampage and spreading. For a species that is of extreme importance to both humans and the environment, this is a coffin nail threat to our natural pollinators.

Internationally the prospect of a travel ban to US airports from Ebola-stricken countries was being de­bated this month. At the same time, European bee-keepers are watching the steady spread of a small beetle that is decimating hives.

The small hive beetle (SHB), indigenous to Africa, was thought to be restricted to that continent until it turned up in Florida, the US, in 1998. The practice of human-assisted migration, where American bees are moved from one place to another to pollinate, has not helped control the spread of this pest.

Within two years of its arriving in the southern states, 20,000 bee colonies were destroyed by the beetle, costing the US bee industry millions of dollars. Despite excellent quarantine measures it spread to Australia, most probably through imported bees, and has since been imported back into Canada.

Australian law calls for infestation of hives by the beetle to be made known to the authorities under the Stock Diseases Act of 1923, with high penalties for bee-keepers who fail to notify.

When a colony is infested, the beetle multiplies to huge numbers in the hive. It is the voracious SHB larva that ruins the honey and destroys hives. They devour pollen, brood (eggs, larvae and pupae of bees), dead adult bees and even the honeycomb itself as they move through the comb, spoiling the honey. The next step is fermentation, with the honey giving off an odour that attracts these honey bee pests from miles around as bees abandon the hive. It can also survive on fruits and vegetables – but its favourite food is honey.

After the feast, thousands of larvae crawl away from the colony to soft ground where they can dig themselves in to become beetles, preferring a sandy type of soil like that in Malta.

A strong hive with plenty of bees may be able to protect itself from an SHB attack by patrolling and herding the beetles and then delegating ‘prison guard’ bees to contain them. However, the hive becomes more vulnerable during swarming or when honey is flowing.

Maltese apiculturists fear that this small but devastating beetle may be headed our way if drastic measures are not taken to stop it in its path.

The beetle measures around half a centimetre long, being oval in shape with distinguishing club-shaped antennae. Adult beetles seek out beehives to lay their eggs and the female is capable of laying an enormous number of eggs. It takes relatively few beetles to produce a severe infestation.

Described as a serious threat to European apiculture, alarm over the beetle’s appearance in south Italy, following a first sighting in Portugal, has quickly led to measures being put in place as far away as Scotland.

“People at the front line of the outbreak are slowly but surely running out of protective suits and gloves.” Rather than a comment on a health ministry’s ability to control Ebola virus sweeping out of Africa, so lethal to humans – this statement, lifted from recent e-mail correspondence, refers to the plague of beetles killing bees on nearby mainland Italy.

Last month the presence of the small hive beetle in southwest Italy was confirmed in a sample taken from bait trap at the University of Gioia Tauro. This was followed by stringent tests, in line with EU legislation, to measure the extent of the outbreak, including a full trace of all sales and movements of bees from the area.

Unless the traffic of goods coming in every day from Sicily is controlled, particularly the import of honey bees, Malta’s honey industry could see a steep decline within a very short time once this hive pest is introduced

Since the first sighting on September 12, further sightings have been confirmed in the region of Reggio Calabria every few days.

There have been substantial levels of imports of package bees and queens from Italy into the UK since 2011. A series of sentinel hives was set up in the UK to act as warning stations across key points of entry to the country.

Monitoring of these watchtower hives will now be stepped up to look out for SHB. British honey producers and bee-keepers have been urged to remain vigilant for the pest and flag any suspected cases of disease.

The Scottish government has urged beekeepers to register on its national bee database while inspections of colonies that have come from Italy are under way. Under EU legislation, any apiary found to contain the beetle requires the bee colonies to be destroyed and all soil surrounding the land to be ploughed in and treated with a soil drench.

Walter Haefeker, president of European Professional Beekeepers Association (EPBA), says it would take 12 hours for a task force of 50 veterinarians and 23 technical advisors, presently on standby, to reach the Italian trouble spot and perform further tests. However, as he points out, there are bureaucratic obstacles:

“Currently, the province of Calabria rejects any use of experts and veterinarians from the outside. Controls in neighbouring provinces so far are all negative. The laws give the region full autonomy to handle the situation themselves and to master the situation. The Italian ministry’s hands apparently are tied.”

A crisis meeting has been called by the EPBA which is asking the German government to block all movements of bees from the affected region.

Local entymologist, University senior lecturer and bee-keeper David Mifsud is alarmed at the apparent lack of awareness over the threat in Malta: “Who is responsible for bees? They should be under the veterinary department but import and export of honey bees also needs to be controlled.”

Mifsud predicts that unless the traffic of goods coming in every day from Sicily is controlled, particularly the import of honey bees, Malta’s honey industry could see a steep decline within a very short time once this hive pest is introduced. Despite the fact that the majority of beekeepers do register all their bee colonies, more effort is needed:

“We need to know who is importing queen bees and from where, who is importing package bees, or if even one hive is being moved from one place to another. Should an infestation break out in Malta this information would be crucial to knowing where to start tackling the problem.”

Clearly the authorities need to get their act together and stop Maltese bee-keepers importing nucleus hives from Sicily – or see the local honey industry suffer an irrevocable blow.

Mifsud is worried that our bee hives won’t survive as every last one could be destroyed by this pest. Having a three-mile range, the beetle threat could quickly reach epidemic proportions among Maltese hives if nothing is done.

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