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PLoS One. 2008 Jul 23;3(7):e2771. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0002771.

Does pathogen spillover from commercially reared bumble bees threaten wild pollinators?

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  • 1Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. michael.otterstatter@utoronto.ca


The conservation of insect pollinators is drawing attention because of reported declines in bee species and the 'ecosystem services' they provide. This issue has been brought to a head by recent devastating losses of honey bees throughout North America (so called, 'Colony Collapse Disorder'); yet, we still have little understanding of the cause(s) of bee declines. Wild bumble bees (Bombus spp.) have also suffered serious declines and circumstantial evidence suggests that pathogen 'spillover' from commercially reared bumble bees, which are used extensively to pollinate greenhouse crops, is a possible cause. We constructed a spatially explicit model of pathogen spillover in bumble bees and, using laboratory experiments and the literature, estimated parameter values for the spillover of Crithidia bombi, a destructive pathogen commonly found in commercial Bombus. We also monitored wild bumble bee populations near greenhouses for evidence of pathogen spillover, and compared the fit of our model to patterns of C. bombi infection observed in the field. Our model predicts that, during the first three months of spillover, transmission from commercial hives would infect up to 20% of wild bumble bees within 2 km of the greenhouse. However, a travelling wave of disease is predicted to form suddenly, infecting up to 35-100% of wild Bombus, and spread away from the greenhouse at a rate of 2 km/wk. In the field, although we did not observe a large epizootic wave of infection, the prevalences of C. bombi near greenhouses were consistent with our model. Indeed, we found that spillover has allowed C. bombi to invade several wild bumble bee species near greenhouses. Given the available evidence, it is likely that pathogen spillover from commercial bees is contributing to the ongoing decline of wild Bombus in North America. Improved management of domestic bees, for example by reducing their parasite loads and their overlap with wild congeners, could diminish or even eliminate pathogen spillover.

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