Bees are responsible for pollinating a third of what we eat (around 90 commercial crops worldwide) and according to the Department for environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), bees contribute £165m a year to the economy.
In the last two years, two million colonies of honeybees have been wiped out across America by what is believed to be colony collapse disorder (CCD). In Taiwan, 10 million honeybees were reported to have disappeared in just two weeks. In Britain nearly one in three of the 240,000 honeybee hives did not survive the winter and spring.
Colony collapse disorder is a poorly understood phenomenon in which worker bees from a beehive or Western honey bee colony abruptly disappear. The cause or causes of the syndrome are not yet understood.
Varroa have been considered as a possible cause of CCD, though not all dying colonies contain these mites. The bloodsucking mite is little bigger than a pinhead and under a microscope, the reddish-brown mite looks like a cross between a jellyfish and a frisbee. It activates lethal viruses in the bee and carries them from bee to bee when it feeds on their blood. When dealing with Varroa, beekeepers need to adopt 'Integrated Pest Management' so as not to rely on a single method of control but to rotate several different systems, so the pest does not become resistant.
It has also been questioned whether Insecticides are contributing to bee losses.
Neonicotinoids resemble nicotine but are far more effective and deadly to bees because
they are systemic (carried all over the plant in the sap) and even in to the flower
they are effective in very, very dilute solution
They are used as a seed dressing (to ward off insect attacks at the roots) on sugar beet seed in particular. Being systemic they are taken up in the swollen root and have been detected in sugar from beet, leaving beekeepers to wonder whether beet sugar can be fed to bees or whether they must use cane sugar only.
In Britain, beekeeping is very small-scale compared with the US. There are a few hundred professional beekeepers, who run an average of 100 hives each; only around 50 of them transport bees to orchards, usually over distances of 25 or so miles, rather than across a continent. Many orchards provide a year-round home for hives kept by amateur beekeepers, so there is no need for migratory beekeepers. But in this country, as in the rest of Europe, it is hard to escape pesticides and the varroa mite.
Losses of 50% of hives have been reported in some areas of the country, particularly in London but also in Derbyshire.
In Staffordshire the amount of hives that have been lost are about the same as normal, according to the North and South Staffordshire beekeepers associations. Losses are due to the queen not being mated, foul brood disease or varroa problems. Honey supplies have been extremely low this year, only leaving enough to feed the bees on.
The National Bee Unit is working with beekeepers to monitor the population declines. But bee organisations say that is not enough and call on the government to fund more research into bee health.
What things could you do to help honeybees? (adapted from the guardian.co.uk)
Become a beekeeper - visit the British Beekeepers' Association (BBKA) website
Help to protect swarms - contact the local authority if you see a swarm, they will contact a local beekeeper who will collect it.
Plant your garden with bee friendly plants - alliums, mints, all beans except French beans and flowering herbs.
Buy local honey - keeps food miles down and helps the beekeeper to cover costs.
Ask your MP to improve research into honeybee health
Find space for a beehive in your garden - if you have some space contact your local beekeeping association and they could find a beekeeper in need of a site.
Wash jars of foreign honey before putting out for recycling - honey brought in from overseas contains bacteria and spores that are very harmful to honeybees.
Encourage local authorities to use bee friendly plants in public places.
Learn more about this fascinating insect.
Bee friendly - when kept properly, bees are good neighbours, and only sting when provoked. If a bee hovers near you, do not flap your hands. Stay calm and move away slowly.
For further information regarding honey bees please see the links below:
Staffordshire County Council is not responsible for the content of external websites linked from this page.
North Staffordshire Beekeepers Association
South Staffordshire Beekeepers Association
Derbyshire Beekeepers Association
Fera Bee Health Pages
Stafford Bee Group - Contact Dave Battersby on 01543 503933