ATWATER (California) - BEEKEEPERS who are battling a mysterious ailment that led to the disappearance of millions of honeybees now fear the sting of imported Australian bees that they worry could outcompete their hives and might carry a deadly parasite unseen in the United States.
The US Department of Agriculture has allowed shipments of Australian bees to resume despite concerns by some of its own scientists.
Australia had been airfreighting 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 has infested areas near the Great Barrier Reef, US officials said.
Early this month, the USDA decided to permit the bee shipments to resume with some precautions, and the first planeloads arrived in San Francisco last Monday.
Beekeeper Ken Haff of Mandan, North Dakota, says he fears the foreign hives could 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 Mr Haff, a vice president of the American Honey Producers Association. 'That's a total slap in the face for us.'
Shad Sullivan, a bee wholesaler in California's Central Valley, said that in the four years he has imported bees from Australia, he has found that the hearty imports outlive domestic bees that have been weakened by pesticides, pests and diseases.
'If the bees were truly carrying something that bad, I would have been the first to get it,' Mr Sullivan said as a thick cloud of the buzzing insects flew overhead. 'I just haven't seen those kinds of devastation.'
Domestic honeybees feed on most flowering plants, and are vital pollinators for many food 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 percent of commercial hives and has been labeled colony collapse disorder.
That's also the year the USDA 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 Australia's Great Barrier Reef could carry a deadly mite, said Jeff 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,' Mr 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 that mite, according to materials provided by Chelsey Martin, counselor for public affairs at the Australian Embassy in Washington.
US agriculture officials say they also are taking precautions.
Agricultural officials 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 do not know how many Australian bees have been imported, but hive importer Mr Sullivan estimates that he has sold 110,000 hives since 2005.
On Wednesday, a USDA inspector in a protective suit collected samples of bees at Mr 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.' -- AP