The plight of the humble bee

PUBLISHED: 09:51 01 December 2010 | UPDATED: 15:41 20 February 2013

Wendy Cummins of the Herefordshire Beekeepers' Association looks at the implications of the crisis in the bee population

Wendy Cummins of the Herefordshire Beekeepers' Association looks at the implications of the crisis in the bee population

Wendy Cummins of the Herefordshire Beekeepers' Association looks at the implications of the crisis in the bee population

Wendy Cummins of the Herefordshire Beekeepers' Association looks at the implications of the crisis in the bee population.

According to Einstein man would have only four years to live if bees disappeared off the face of the earth. Bees play a vital part, not widely recognised, in pollinating so many crops that without them agriculture would be devastated. They are said to be responsible for every third mouthful of food that we eat. They also pollinate wild plants, which in turn produce seeds and fruits, thus helping the food chain of birds and wild animals.

Many readers will have heard recent reports that the bee population in Britain declined by 25% during last winter, and by 18% the year before.

The main cause of the crisis is the varroa mite, now known as Varroa destructor, which was first found in south-west Britain in 1992, but has now spread right across the country. The mite lives in hives, feeding on the haemolymph of both bees and their larvae. It is small, oval in shape and chestnut red in colour, just about visible to the naked eye. It causes serious physical damage to its host victims, but worst of all, causes various viruses to become active. Colonies left untreated inevitably die.

Mites get transported from colony to colony by visiting bees, and have now spread throughout virtually the whole world. Unfortunately, honeybees have no natural immunity against this parasite, which 'jumped species' in the early 1900s from the Eastern honeybee, Apis cerana, when European honeybees, Apis mellifera, were taken east to benefit from an additional honey source.

At first the only treatment was the use of pyrethroyd impregnated strips, but over the years mites have developed a resistance to this chemical, so that new methods need to be employed. One is called 'integrated pest management', and involves biological control methods in conjunction with the pyrethroyds.

But mites are not the only problem. Foul brood diseases (where larvae become infected with different bacteria) and other forms of virus are ever-present and require constant monitoring and control. The former are very serious and infectious, and are notifiable diseases by law. Recognising these requires training, which most beekeepers are glad to undertake. It also requires good field experience, which is not easily available to the ordinary beekeeper under current legislation.

To add to our problems, there is a threat of other exotic pests gaining a foothold in this country, such as the small hive beetle, which originates in Africa and can utterly destroy a colony. This has gained a disastrous foothold in the Americas, where many colonies have been lost as a result. Its arrival in the UK could be expected at any time.

In the USA another problem, known as Colony Collapse Disorder, has been responsible for massive colony losses; its cause is still unknown. Fortunately this has not yet arrived in the UK.

Beekeepers have for many years played an active part in pest and disease management, whether they are bee farmers, producing honey commercially, or the vastly greater number of hobbyists who own just a few hives, many of whom belong to county associations affiliated to the national British Beekeepers' Association.

In the past, in a good year with plenty of sunshine and no diseases, a beekeeper might have harvested 200-300 pounds of honey per hive, but this has decreased dramatically in recent years. In the last two summers some beekeepers have not harvested any at all, leading to a dire shortage of English honey.

DEFRA acknowledges that honeybees, partly through the pollination of crops, contribute something like £165 million per annum to the British economy. But at present the government allocates a mere 200,000 to essential research into the problems our honeybees are facing. A further 1.3 million aids the work of the Central Science Laboratory's National Bee Unit bee health inspection programme.

British beekeepers have now petitioned the government for additional funding of 8 million over the next five years for essential bee health research - a comparatively modest sum, even in these difficult financial times. Beekeepers themselves, through the BBKA Research Fund, are contributing towards research, but the overall cost is far too high for ordinary beekeepers to meet.

We are confident of the vast support we have at all levels amongst the public and politicians: the government needs to act now to prevent disaster.

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