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Effect of Apis mellifera on indigenous plant and animal species in Japan

by Hideo Watanbe, Tokyo, Japan

The first printed reference to bees in Japan is in AD 643, when the indigenous Japanese honeybees Apis cerana japonica were used for beekeeping. In 1876 European race of the honeybee Apis mellifera was first imported to Japan, along with European beekeeping technology, and now almost all beekeepers in Japan have Apis mellifera. While the effect of this introduced Apis mellifera on various indigenous species has been observed, it has never become subject of discussion, probably for the following reasons:

1. Apis mellifera’s negative effect on indigenous life is negligible in comparison with the loss of trees, environmental pollution and use of agricultural chemicals in Japan.

2. Apis mellifera has not adapted itself to life in the wild.

3. There are many predators of honeybees, including birds, bears, dragonflies, Galleria mellonella, preying mantis, spiders, toads, Varroa jacobsoni, Vespa mandarinia and Vespa xanthoptera. In addition Apis mellifera suffers from many diseases.

4. Despite these various problems, it is not difficult to raise bees and produce high quality products. 

As result of the decline in pollinating insects due to the widespread use of agricultural chemicals, honeybees are widely utilised in the pollination of crops and fruits. The use of honeybees for pollination of strawberries and melon in greenhouses has increased and the honeybee has become indispensable for our food supply.

Japan has devoted 20.1% of its area to state forests. Many Japanese beekeepers prefer to raise their bees in these areas to remain in harmony with the nature that provides them with their livelihood, and also to carry out their unofficial custodianship as observers and preservers of these lands. There have been no readily observable untoward effects from the high activity of Apis mellifera in such areas. 

Under the Beekeeping Promotion Law established in 1955, many government organisations, public bodies, universities and institutes began to co-operate with beekeepers. However, due to economic and ecological problems, bees and beekeepers are on the decline. From 10,918 beekeepers and 320,171 colonies in 1980 to 7,235 beekeepers and 214,112 colonies in 1995. It has become national theme in Japan to improve the condition of beekeeping, which helps to improve the natural environment, food supply and human health.

Recently there has been discussion among ecologists that small, isolated islands such as Ogasawara could be disturbed through the introduction of Apis mellifera. However, as mentioned above, the main islands do not seem to have been affected.