ATWATER, CALIF. — Beekeepers battling a mysterious ailment that led to the disappearance of millions of honeybees now fear the sting of imported Australian bees that could out-compete their hives and may be carrying a deadly parasite unseen in the U.S.
The Department of Agriculture has allowed shipments of Australian bees to resume despite concerns by some of its scientists.
Australia had been sending the insects across the Pacific for four years to replace hives devastated by the perplexing colony collapse disorder. But six weeks ago, the Australian government abruptly stopped the shipments, saying it could no longer be certain the country was free of a smaller, aggressive bee that had infested areas near Australia's Great Barrier Reef, U.S. officials said.
Last month, the Department of Agriculture decided to permit the bee shipments to resume with some precautions, and the first planeloads have already arrived in San Francisco.
Beekeeper Ken Haff of Mandan, N.D., says he fears the foreign hives will kill off his apiary.
"We've got enough problems with our own bee diseases that we don't know how to treat, and they open the border to a whole new species that could carry God knows what," said Haff, a vice president of the American Honey Producers Assn. "That's a total slap in the face for us."
Shad Sullivan, a bee wholesaler in California's Central Valley, says in the four years he has imported bees from Australia, he has found the hearty imports outlive domestic bees weakened by pesticides, pests and diseases.
"If the bees were truly carrying something that bad, I would have been the first to get it," Sullivan said as a thick cloud of bees flew overhead. "I just haven't seen those kinds of devastation."
Domestic honeybees feed on most flowering plants and are vital pollinators for many crops.
However, domestic bee stocks have been waning since 2004, when scientists first got reports of the puzzling illness that has claimed up to 90% of commercial hives and has been labeled colony collapse disorder.
That's also the year the Department of Agriculture allowed imports of Australian hives, and scientists have been investigating whether Australia was a source of a virus tied to the bee die-off.
Entomologists also fear that the aggressive bee species found near the Great Barrier Reef could carry a deadly mite, said Jeffery Pettis, the USDA's top bee scientist.
"This could be a threat worldwide because if those bees are moving around, the chances are this mite would move with it," Pettis said. "We just don't need another species causing problems."
The Australian government has adopted emergency controls to quarantine and destroy the aggressive bees and has never detected the mite, according to materials provided by Chelsey Martin, counselor for public affairs at the Australian Embassy in Washington.
U.S. agriculture officials say they are taking precautions.
They started sampling Australian bees last week after they were released in the Central Valley.
"Bees from Australia make great sense," said Wayne Wehling, a senior entomologist in the USDA's permit unit. "But we certainly don't want to bring any economic impacts onto our honeybees that we don't already have or introduce any new pests or disease."
Government officials said they did not know how many Australian bees had been imported, but Sullivan estimated that he had sold 110,000 hives since 2005.
On Jan. 14, a USDA inspector collected samples of bees at Sullivan's operation.
"Hopefully this will ease the minds of people who have their own hives here," said inspector John Iniguez. "We're trusting Australia that they're clean. Now we just want to confirm that."