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Groups ask U.S. to regulate shipping of commercial bumblebees

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 13, 2010; A02

Conservation groups said four species of native bumblebees are close to extinction and called on the federal government Tuesday to begin regulating the shipping of bees raised commercially as crop pollinators.

Researchers believe the precipitous declines in the species are being caused by diseases linked to the cultivation of a species of native bumblebee sold to farmers. The bees are used to increase fruit yield in a number of crops, including hothouse tomatoes and field-grown raspberries and blueberries.

During the past decade, wild bee species "went from being -- some of them -- very common to species that are now going extinct," said Scott Hoffman Black, executive director of the Xerces Society.

In the Eastern United States, the yellow-banded and rusty-patched bumblebees have declined markedly. In Western states, populations of the Franklin's and Western bumblebees have crashed, according to scientists. "We believe this is a disease that has been spread by commercial bumblebees because these [wild] species are closely related to one of the species moved to Europe [for rearing] and then moved back," Black said.

The Xerces Society, the Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council have asked the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to block the movement of commercially raised bees outside their native ranges, and to require bee rearers, through permits, to show that their insects are disease-free. A spokesman said the agency is reviewing the request.

René Ruiter, a spokesman for the largest producer of bumblebee hives in the United States, Koppert Biological Systems in Romulus, Mich., said bees shipped internationally are already certified disease and pest free and those shipped domestically "all come from the same facility."

"We are as motivated to protect bumblebees as the environmental organizations. To us it's not a grave concern to have to prove our bees are disease free," he said.

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