HUNDREDS of thousands of foreign bumblebees are being imported into the UK each year by fruit farmers worried their crops will fail, The Scotsman has learned.
Bumblebee numbers in the UK have plummeted in recent decades, and this is leading fruit growers to import thousands of hives each year to help pollinate crops.
However, experts have warned the bees from Europe may carry diseases that threaten the survival of already vulnerable native varieties of the insect in Scotland.
Professor David Goulson, director of the British Bumblebee Conservation Trust, said huge bumblebee factories have sprung up in Europe.
He believes more than half of fruit farms in Scotland now buy bumblebee hives from overseas – mainly from Slovakia, Belgium and Holland.
And he warned they could spread disease, out-compete native bees and dilute British species by creating hybrids.
"Farmers growing raspberries and strawberries think there aren't enough wild bees to pollinate their crops," he said. "Whether it's good marketing on behalf of the people that sell them, or whether bee levels are so bad that farmers need to buy them in, we don't know."
It is illegal to release non- native species into Scotland but the foreign bees are a sub-species of the native variety called Bombus terrestris. Prof Goulson said this means there is a grey area in the law, which needs to be clarified. "From the point of view of the fruit growers, you can't really blame them at all," said Prof Goulson.
"They are entirely unaware that there's any reason not to buy these nests. Nobody is giving them any advice and most of them aren't aware these aren't native bees."
Each hive costs between 50 to 100 and is sent in a box that can be opened to release the insects into fruit polytunnels or greenhouses.
Prof Goulson said instead of spending large amounts of money on bumblebees, it would be better if fruit farmers planted strips of flowers to encourage native insects to thrive.
Scottish Natural Heritage will discuss concerns about bees at a board meeting today, including the use of bees as pollinators by fruit farmers.
Chris Sydes, policy and advice manager at Scottish Natural Heritage, said: "There is a concern about them bringing disease."
He highlighted that the Wildlife and Countryside Act was due to be overhauled in Scotland. This is likely to tighten up rules on which species can be released into the wild.
STEPS are being taken to try to protect a honeybee that has lived on the remote Scottish island of Colonsay for thousands of years from foreign varieties.
There are fears that Apis mellifera mellifera – a strain of the native black bee – could interbreed with other species, forming hybrids.
Beekeepers say the bee is hardier than other species – meaning it can gather nectar even on cool, windy days when many bees would stay in their hives.
Scottish Natural Heritage has looked into protecting the bee under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, used to protect native red deer in the Outer Hebrides from hybridisation with Sika deer. However, honeybees are not classed as wild animals.
Now efforts are being made to protect it using alternative legislation.