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Conservationists tell commercial bumblebees to buzz off

Commercially produced bumblebees may be detrimental to wild bumblebees.

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The Xerces Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife and University of California, Davis entomologist Robbin Thorp formally petitioned the US Department of Agriculture and its Animal and Plant Health Inspection service. They want to prohibit shipping commercially domesticated bumblebees and hives outside their native range, and to certify that domesticated bumblebees are disease free.

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The petition cited steep declines in recent years of the Franklin's and Western bumblebee in the West, and the rusty-patched and yellow-banded bumblebee in the East.

Nine prominent entomologists signed a letter in support of the petition.

"A major threat to the survival of these wild bumblebee pollinators is the spread of disease from commercially produced bees that are transported throughout the country," says the letter, signed by University of Kansas entomologist Charles Michener and others.

Black says they wanted to work with federal authorities to control the spread of disease before taking the next step, seeking Endangered Species Act protection for the bumblebees.

While research has yet to conclusively blame a specific disease shared with domesticated species, the petition cited studies showing domesticated bumblebees regularly escape greenhouses and one bee can infect another when they come in contact gathering pollen.

Unlike honeybees, which came to North America with the European colonists of the 17th century, bumblebees are natives. They collect pollen and nectar to feed to their young but make very little honey.

A 2007 National Academy of Sciences report blamed the decline of pollinators around the world on a combination of habitat loss, pesticides, pollution and diseases spilling out of greenhouses using commercial bumblebee hives.

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