Natural England
Printable version E-mail this to a friend

New licensing regime announced to help safeguard native bees

Natural England has yesterday announced changes to the regulations affecting the use of imported non-native bumblebees for commercial pollination.

The changes – which will be implemented from 1 January 2013 - are designed to help safeguard the health of native bumble bees and honey bees and will see a tightening of the licensing regulations.

The changes reflect growing global concerns around the impact which commercially-reared bees may be having on native bumble bees and honey bees – with evidence that they are competing and breeding with native insects; disrupting the pollination of native plants and introducing diseases and parasites.

Non-native bumble bees - predominantly subspecies of the buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) - are widely used for pollination in commercial horticulture in England, having been bred in continental Europe and then specially imported. Natural England is keen to ensure that licensing changes do not have a disproportionate impact on growers and suppliers, whilst providing better safeguards for protecting native bee populations.

Introducing the new licensing arrangements, Janette Ward, Natural England’s Regulation Director said: “We recognise the important economic role that commercially-reared bumblebees play in agriculture and the heavy reliance that some sectors of the horticulture industry have on non-native bumble bees in order to produce high quality fruit and vegetables.

“However, we cannot ignore increasing evidence about the threats facing our natural pollinators.  In introducing stronger safeguards, we are seeking to balance conservation concerns with the needs of the horticulture industry, taking into consideration the wider agricultural services provided by bees.”

Currently, non-native bumble bees released for agricultural purposes are licensed under Natural England’s General Licence system. The new regime will operate under Natural England’s Class Licence system - requiring registration of the release premises in order to allow improved monitoring of impacts on surrounding wildlife and investigation of disease patterns. Growers should make every attempt to register their premises under the new scheme as soon as possible, although this will be viewed pragmatically as the new system embeds. An improved disease-screening protocol for importers, requiring sensitive laboratory analysis will also become compulsory.

The key elements of the new licensing regime are:

  • All growers wishing to use non native bumblebees will be required to register their premises with Natural England before the bumblebees are released. 

  • Producers of commercial non-native bumblebees will be required to follow an improved disease-screening protocol, requiring sensitive laboratory analysis to detect a greater range of bee diseases and pathogens. Bumblebees found to be infected by disease or parasites will not be permitted into the UK.

  • Non-native bumblebees will only be permitted for use in greenhouses or poly-tunnels and all reasonable steps must be taken to prevent their escape.

  • Bumblebee queens must be kept inside their hives.  After use for pollination, all non native colonies must be destroyed to prevent establishment in the wild.

  • Natural England will monitor licences to ensure that the non native bumblebees are being used appropriately. The unlicensed release of non-native bumblebees is a criminal offence and can result in a fine of up to £5,000 and / or a six month prison sentence.

These changes will take effect from 1 January 2013. Further information on what the changes involve and what you need to do to apply for a licence.

Notes to editors:

Changes to the licensing regime in detail:

  • All growers wishing to use non-native bumblebees for pollination will need to do so under the terms of Class Licence. This will require growers to register the premises where the bumblebees will be used with Natural England, allowing impacts on surrounding wildlife to be monitored and disease patterns investigated.  Growers can obtain a copy of this licence from Natural England website or by writing to Customer Services, Wildlife Licensing, Natural England, First Floor, Temple Quay, Bristol BS1 6EB.
  • As with previous licences, the use of non-native bumblebees will only be permitted in greenhouses or poly-tunnels and all reasonable steps must be taken to prevent their escape. Their use will not be permitted in open fields, orchards and private gardens to reduce the chances of non-native bumblebees competing with native bees and spreading disease. 
  • Bumblebee queens will not be allowed to leave their hives. Commercial bumblebees are supplied in artificial hives which have entry points which can be restricted to permit the passage of the workers in and out of the hive for pollination, but prevent the larger queens leaving.  Non-native bumblebees can only become established in the wild if queens can leave the hive to overwinter and start a new colony in the wild. 
  • After use for pollination, all non-native colonies must be destroyed by methods such as freezing or approved-pesticides.  Colonies containing live non-native bumble bees must not be placed in skips or allowed to enter the domestic rubbish system. 
  • Producers of commercial non-native bumblebees for the horticulture trade will be required to follow an improved disease screening protocol.  This will be to a higher specification than that required by the EU for routine honeybee imports - which only requires inspection of bees for a number of notifiable bee diseases and parasites.  The revised screening protocol will require more sensitive laboratory analysis to detect a greater range of bee diseases and pathogens.  Bumble bees found to be infected by disease or parasites will not be permitted for release in the UK. 
  • Natural England will monitor licences to ensure that non-native bumble bees are being used correctly.  The unlicensed use of non-native bumble bees in open fields or private gardens is a criminal offence, resulting in a fine of up to £5,000 and / or a six month prison sentence.

Licensing information:

A Connected World: Download this latest white paper here