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Why Import European Bumblebees?

The Debate Rages...

In 1997 an application was made to import European bumblebees for greenhouse tomato pollination. This was refused by AQIS (Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service) on environmental grounds.

Now the threat looms again because the Australian Hydroponic and Greenhouse Association lodged a new importation proposal in 2004. The final period of public comment on this proposal is open until 16 June 2006. Click here to express your comments!

Please See Our Full 2006 Update on the Bumble Bee Importation Proposal

Recent research at the University of Western Sydney (Aussie Bee Online Articles 2 and 9) and at the University of Adelaide shows that Australian native blue banded bees could be good alternative pollinators to bumblebees for greenhouse tomato crops.

Click here to read:
What harm could exotic bumblebees do in Australia?
How to identify a bumblebee
Have you seen a bumblebee on the Australian mainland?
Ferals told to buzz off and leave pollination to locals (SMH article)
Why the locals are just the bee's knees (Letter to Editor, SMH)
Act now to stop the European bumblebee importation

Ferals told to buzz off and leave pollination to locals

by James Woodford
Article originally published in Sydney Morning Herald, 10 May 2003

To native bee or bumblebee? That is the question.

But Melissa Bell says authorities should not even be asking it.

The University of Western Sydney horticulturist is studying the potential of Australian bees to be used for the commercial pollination of crops.

Ms Bell says at least one common species - the spectacular, agile and docile blue-banded bee - could be perfect for the job of glasshouse pollination. Her research has shown that the bees appear to be prolific tomato pollinators, particularly attracted to yellow, blue and purple flowers.

The bees are so absorbed by blue that when Ms Bell is writing her notes the insects follow her pen. Also, unlike honey bees, the blue-banded variety are non-aggressive and virtually have to be squashed before stinging.

However, glasshouse tomato growers are lobbying the Federal Government to allow the introduction of the exotic bumblebee to mainland Australia.

Bumblebees have already been brought to Tasmania illegally.

Ms Bell is racing to prevent the introduction of yet more species of bees from overseas, warning that Australia risks importing another pest.

In the absence of wind, glasshouse growers need a pollinator living with their plants to make them develop seeds and grow properly. The only alternative is to employ people to shake every flower truss.

The European honey bee, which has already spread across Australia, is unsatisfactory because it lacks the ability to "buzz pollinate" - it is physically unable to bury itself in tomato flowers and shake pollen free.

European bees also dislike life indoors and tend to throw themselves against the glass rather than into the flowers.

Blue-banded bees, on the other hand, have extraordinary aeronautical abilities, allowing them to manoeuvre easily through the thickest of vegetation, and they don't mind being kept inside.

Ms Bell's research suggests that they can live happily with a few mud bricks to nest in.

A report funded by Horticulture Australia found that there was little risk to the environment from bumblebees, but some scientists disagree.

A new study says the exotic bumblebees have spread rapidly in the nine years since their introduction to Tasmania.

"Contrary to previous suggestions, the species is established in the most remote parts of Tasmania and is not dependent on introduced garden plants," it says.

"Given their strong record of invasion, it is likely that [bumblebees] will form feral populations on the mainland of Australia . . . Because of their likely negative impacts on native animals and plants, and potential to enhance seed production in weeds, the spread of bumblebees should be avoided."

Ms Bell wants there to be more focus on the skills of the nation's more than 1500 bee species.

"At what risk do we bring in another exotic species? They don't have a pollinator but we have native bees that with more research may do the job."

© 2003 James Woodford. All Rights Reserved.
This article is reproduced on this website with the kind permission of the author.

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Why the locals are just the bee's knees

Letter to the Editor, Sydney Morning Herald
10 May 2003

I was very pleased to see your story on Melissa Bell and her research on the use of Australian blue-banded bees as potential pollinators of commercial greenhouse tomatoes, in preference to introducing exotic bumblebees ("Ferals told to buzz off and leave pollination to locals", Herald, May 10-11).

In the 1980s I researched the pollination biology of bumblebees at the University of Exeter in Britain. It is true that bumblebees are fantastic pollinators and that overseas they have had a huge impact on production of glasshouse crops.

However, based on my experiences with these exotic bees, I hold great concerns that if bumblebees are introduced into mainland Australia they will establish feral populations which will compete with native fauna and cause significant environmental harm.

I find it particularly frustrating that horticulturists are proposing to bring in exotic bumblebees despite the fact that we have several Australian native bee species that will visit and successfully pollinate tomatoes and other crops.

As researchers are demonstrating, these bees can be raised in glasshouses and used as crop pollinators. What the glasshouse crops industry should be pushing for is more funding for research on native bee species. We certainly don't need any more introductions of exotic species that may threaten our damaged and fragile ecosystems.

Dr Brian Faulkner
Pheasants Nest, NSW

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Related articles:
Help stop the importation of European bumblebees!
A detailed analysis of the AHGA report
What harm could exotic bumblebees do in Australia?
How far could feral bumblebees spread in Australia?

Bumblebees and invasive weeds
The native bee alternative to the bumblebee
How to identify a bumblebee
Have you seen a bumblebee on the Australian mainland?

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PO Box 74, North Richmond NSW 2754, Australia