British beekeepers are concerned about the "imminent and serious risk" to bees as businesses consider importing honey bees from southern Italy via Northern Ireland.

Beekeepers are worried that the Small Hive Beetle (SHB) could escape detection in the bee packages and go on to decimate colonies.

The SNB is an invasive species native to Africa which has become endemic in southern Italy since 2014.

Defra states that the beetle can multiply to huge numbers within infested colonies, where it eats brood, honey and pollen, destroys combs and causes fermentation and spoiling of the honey.

If beetle infestations are uncontrolled, they ultimately destroy the colony. In the USA, within two years of its discovery, at least 20,000 colonies were destroyed by the beetle.

Brexit has meant that bees can no longer be imported the from EU. Before January 1 packages of bees were inspected on arrival by bee health experts before being allowed into general circulation.

Since Northern Ireland remains in the EU, bees can still be imported there. In turn, since Northern Ireland is part of the UK, bees can be imported to the UK without restriction.

As historically, bee imports into Northern Ireland were minimal, there is not currently a strong inspection service available, says the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA).

A spokesperson said: "Beekeeping associations, from all around the UK, are in agreement that the importation of bees from overseas is totally against best practices for the protection of our environment.

"The problem is that at least one beekeeping business has said that they want to import bees to the UK through Northern Ireland.

"The bees they are sourcing come from southern Italy where a serious invasive species and parasite of bees, the Small Hive Beetle is established.

"The inspections on bees are extremely limited and we are fearful that a small, clubbed antenna, beetle will be able to evade their scrutiny and be imported to the mainland.

'The potential effect of allowing this avoidance of the import laws and the threat it carries to our bees is clearly not part of a legitimate trade and as such breaches the law.'

The BBKA is taking the issue to Parliament and has begun a petition which can be found on its website.