Small Hive Beetle (SHB) and the UK

Small Hive Beetle

Small Hive Beetle

Small hive beetle (SHB; Aethina tumida) is a small, invasive beetle originally from Africa that infests colonies, eating brood, pollen and honey, destroying comb and causing honey to ferment.  Without control, infestation leads to destruction of the colony. SHB is now present globally and, since the 1990’s, has been distributed with bees and bee products (e.g. beeswax) resulting in infestations in the USA and Hawaii, Australia, Canada, Mexico, Jamaica and Cuba. SHB was introduced to Portugal in 2004 (in a consignment of queens from Texas) but very rapidly detected and eradicated. This was the first time SHB was present on mainland Europe … it’s now back.

SHB has been detected in Southern Italy and appears to be well established. The UK imports large numbers of bee packages and queens from Italy. There is a very real threat to UK beekeeping … the summary of an article by the National Bee Unit concluded that “Its arrival in the United Kingdom would pose a significant threat to the long-term sustainability and economic prosperity of beekeeping and, as a consequence, to agriculture and the environment through disruption to pollination services”. My opinion is that the export of bees and queens from Italy should be banned until the extent of infestation is known. In addition, the import of bees and queens to the UK (from all countries, not just Italy) should be banned to reduce the chance of inadvertently acquiring the beetle from a third country.

The impact of SHB and its presence in Italy

In the USA, SHB was first detected in Florida in 1998. Within two years it had resulted in the destruction of 20,000 colonies in the USA. Like Varroa, once established, SHB will probably be impossible to eradicate. The National Bee Unit has produced an excellent (and recently updated) guide to SHB (PDF download) which should be compulsory reading for all beekeepers. It describes the identification of the beetle, the consequences of infestation, the likely impact on UK beekeepers and beekeeping, methods of detection (to be covered in another post) and control.

It appears as though the early infestation in the Calabria region of Southern Italy was overlooked, resulting in the beetle becoming quite widely distributed. The beetle was first detected on the 11th of September 2014, a protection zone (20km) and eradication zone (100km) were established with compulsory colony destruction of infested colonies in the former. Over 1500 colonies have been destroyed, but the protection zone has recently been extended to include much of eastern Sicily. SHB is clearly widespread in Southern Italy and COLOSS – the honeybee research organisation – have recently announced that SHB is in Europe to stay.

Southern Italy has a lot of migratory beekeeping meaning that the beetle is quite possibly even more widespread. Particularly worrying for UK beekeepers is that many bees and queens are imported from Italy, either directly or via a third country. In 2014 over 1200 packages of bees and 1750 batches of queens were imported from Italy, in 27 separate consignments. Only 8 of these consignments were inspected. The total imports from EU countries to the UK in 2014 was much larger, with 1400 packages of bees, 580 nucs and nearly 10,000 queens. Many thousands of queens are exported from Italy to France each year, with some perhaps being used to head the increasing number of French-sourced nucs being imported to the UK each year.

I do not think that UK beekeepers need to import bees or queens from abroad. I suspect that many of the imported queens are used to head early-season nucs being sold to enthusiastic new beekeepers at the beginning of the season, or to beekeepers making up for winter losses. I think the currently popularity of beekeeping, the “pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap” nature of some training courses and, possibly, poor standards of colony preparation for winter and patchy integrated pest management procedures, are the underlying causes for the high demand for early season nucs and queens. I will write separately about this during the winter.

The BBKA have released a statement to the effect that beekeepers should be vigilant, but that the most likely route by which the beetle will be imported is with fruit, vegetables and plant material from the affected area (25th September statement; PDF). There was no suggestion that import of bees from Italy to the UK should be banned. There may be several reasons for this, not least that current EU legislation may not allow such a ban to be imposed. I’m disappointed by failure of the BBKA to take a more aggressive stance to protect UK beekeepers and beekeeping. Although SHB can be transmitted by at least 8 different routes (including flying up to 10km) a published analysis by DEFRA (“Development of an evidence based risk assessment for small hive beetle“)  on the threat from SHB to the UK includes the quote “The pathway likely to present the greatest risk of introduction was the movement and importation of honey bees”. This report was published in 2009.

This situation is developing, but there are only a few months until the new season starts. There are active threads discussing it on the Beekeeping Forum and the – often better informed – SBAi forum. The SBAi forum contains links to a number of maps showing distribution of the beetle in Italy and translations of the pages from reports on Italian beekeeping websites.

What can UK beekeepers and associations do?

Beekeeping associations should discuss their assessment of the risk of SHB to UK beekeeping (as should individuals). Don’t leave this until next season … it may be too late by then. If SHB was to be introduced to the UK I would expect colony destruction to be used as a means of controlling spread, at least initially. Does your association want to risk this? Bee Diseases Insurance (BDI) will cover colony destruction necessitated by the presence of SHB, but the cover is limited to only £50,000 (this is nationally, not per beekeeper). What else could an association do to help prevent SHB changing UK beekeeping?

  • Encourage association member not to import bees or queens. Ideally, don’t import bees or queens at all (do you know where your French-sourced nuc actually originated?) but at the very least don’t import from Italy.
  • Do not allow imported bees to be housed on association apiaries. These often have higher hive densities and so provide ample opportunity for spread. This may also encourage beekeepers to source local bees, rather than having to move from a shared association apiary.
  • Encourage active queen rearers in the association to make queens available to association members who would otherwise purchase imported queens. Allow free adverts in your newsletter? Provide lists of queen and nuc suppliers.
  • Start a queen rearing group so association members become more self-sufficient. Locally bred queens are likely to be better suited to the local conditions, so this makes sense anyway.
  • Encourage beginners on winter beekeeping courses to source local bees from association members rather than purchasing them from an unknown source at the earliest opportunity. They might have to wait a few extra weeks (and I appreciate the urge to get started as soon as possible) but they can get some experience with their mentor during this time and will be much better prepared when the nuc is ready.
  • Overwinter 5 frame nucs for use or sale in the spring. This is too late for this year but requires only a little preparation during the mid/late summer season. This could be done both at the individual and association level … “guaranteeing” local bees for attendees on winter beginners courses.
  • Watch the excellent talk that Michael Palmer gave at the National Honey Show in 2013 on The Sustainable Apiary.
  • Encourage your national beekeeping association (BBKA, SBA, WBKA) to take a pro-active stance to limit the chances of the beetle being imported.
  • Monitor colonies using Correx SHB traps on a regular basis – more on this in a later post.

Once here it is unlikely that we will be able to eradicate SHB. The USA failed, Hawaii failed, Australia failed, Canada failed and it looks almost certain that Italy has failed. 

Further reading

Contingency planning for the Small Hive Beetle – Bee-Craft article from 2012 describing sentinel apiaries, monitoring imports etc.

Beebase (DEFRA) pages on Small Hive Beetle and further notes on contingency planning.



7 thoughts on “Small Hive Beetle (SHB) and the UK

  1. Thomas Bickerdike

    Yes it looks as though it’s going to stay and interesting to see come the spring how far and fast it will spread throughout the rest of Europe and eventually arrive on our door steps, if not already. We should ban all imports from Italy and consider mainland Europe to. Drastic measures but may give us time and after all we are more than capable to be self sufficient in all parts of beekeeping.

    1. dje Post author

      I’m certainly in favour of an import ban. I don’t think SHB is here already as I think the NBU/SBI have worked hard to inspect bees imported from Italy. However, I think the current way we (or at least many associations) run beginners courses and the – frankly daft – prices for early season nucs suggests we are a long way from being self-sufficient. I love the seasonality of beekeeping but increasingly realise it doesn’t fit well with the ebb and flow of supply and demand for nucs and queens. I think more emphasis needs to be made on training over the full season, on mid/late season requeening for improved overwintering and on overwintering nucs for replacing losses or meeting local early season demand. I’m going to write about this over the winter.

  2. dje Post author

    The SBA discussed what to do about the threat of SHB (at their meeting on Saturday for Local Association secretaries and SBA Council) and there was significant support for the following position:

    “The SBA urges that all possible measures are taken to prevent the introduction of small hive beetle into the UK. These should include a cessation of trade in live bees from the rest of Europe for 2015 until the true spread of the pest is better known.”

    This a much stronger statement than has so far been made by the BBKA and, I think, properly reflects the risks of importing the beetle with bees or queens from Italy or elsewhere in Europe.

  3. Talking With Bees

    I very much agree with your comments on this page and your more recent post entitled “Supply & Demand”. There was a TV programme earlier this year, whereby a grower of tomatoes or strawberries in the UK was importing bee colonies from Italy for pollination purposes. Why do we need to import bees? Surely sufficient numbers of nucs/colonies of bees can be generated in the UK.

    I managed to find a bit of time over Christmas and write a bit about the Small Hive Beetle and what to do about it – should it come here.

    Hope you had a good Christmas.

    1. dje Post author

      I’ve discussed the need for imports in the Supply and Demand post … I believe we could be self-sufficient, but not unless the average standard of beekeeping improves and we reduce demand in early season. There’s little or no incentive to do this if a “quick fix” is available from the continent for £30. Why bother to go to the trouble of overwintering nucs or learning how to raise queens if you can buy them so cheaply?

      Pollination of strawbs and toms is usually by bumblebees in polytunnels I think. These colonies are imported by the thousand from the Netherlands (I think) and also pose a potential source of new pathogens. Additionally, they threaten our own native bumblebees by competition and cross-breeding as described in A sting in the tail by Dave Goulson (recommended).

      SHB appears to be manageable in strong colonies and northern climates … certainly that’s the impression I get from comments by Jamie Ellis or Michael Palmer. However, I’d prefer it didn’t get here at all.

      Very relaxing Christmas … many thanks

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