Bees are responsible for pollinating a third of what we eat. This is around 90 commercial crops worldwide.
According to the Department for environment, food and rural affairs (Defra), bees contribute £165m a year to the economy.
Colony collapse disorder
This 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 (bloodsucking mites) have been considered as a possible cause although not all dying colonies contain them.
The 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. It carries them from bee to bee when it feeds on their blood.
Integrated pest management
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. This is so the pest does not become resistant.
It has 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. They 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.
Beekeeping in Great Britain
Beekeeping is very small-scale here 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.
Here, the amount of hives that have been lost are about the same as elsewhere, according to the North and South Staffordshire beekeepers associations.
Losses are due to:
- The queen not being mated.
- Foul brood disease.
- Varroa problems.
Honey supplies have been extremely low some years, only leaving enough to feed the bees on.
The National Bee Unit is working with beekeepers to monitor the declining population. Bee organisations say that is not enough and call on the government to fund more research into bee health.
How can I help honeybees?
The following advice is adapted from the Guardian website:
- 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 such as alliums, mints, all beans except French beans and flowering herbs.
- Buy local honey. It 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. 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 can contain 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 more information: