Page last updated at 22:41 GMT, Thursday, 23 April 2009 23:41 UK

The economic value of honeybees

By Nick Holland
BBC Business and economics reporter


Bee-keeper tries to keep job alive

"If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man."

There is some debate about who actually made this remark. It is often attributed to Albert Einstein, but few scientists now believe this doomsday scenario will actually happen.

Nevertheless, the apocalyptic vision is an indication of how important honeybees are to the world's agricultural economy. It is estimated a third of the food we eat is pollinated by bees.

So it is no wonder the dramatic and unexplained decline in the population of these insects is worrying for everyone, not just the conservationists.

Fewer bees means less pollination, which results in less honey and fewer plants.

The consequences are damaging industries that depend on the insects' survival and threaten to make the food we eat more expensive.

Fragile industry

Hidden away in quiet corner of Regents Park in London, Toby Mason puffs a calming smoke through the slats of one of his wooden beehives.

Picture of a honeybee
Disease and poor weather have hit commercial beekeeping

It settles the insects while he checks over the colony.

Mr Mason is one of only 300 commercial beekeepers in the country.

Fluctuations in the weather and the increased prevalence of diseases make it a fragile industry to be in. Last year these factors cost his business Purefood half its revenue.

"The year before last I went into the winter with 20 colonies and by spring last year only four or five of those colonies were alive," he says.

"It means there's huge losses in the business... and very little income from the sales of the honey because there isn't the honey there to be sold."

The shortages in supply are having a knock-on effect on the retail market too. Because the UK does not produce nearly enough honey for its own consumption, supplies are imported from abroad.

"There's been lots of talk about the problems of honeybee health around the country and indeed that is a worldwide problem, not just a UK problem," says David Bondi, managing director of Rouse Honey, one of the largest suppliers of honey in the UK.

"If you add together the effect of the increase in the cost of honey because it is in shorter supply and the increase because of the exchange rate, some honeys have doubled in price."

Economic importance

But bees do more than just make honey. They fly around pollinating all sorts of fruit and vegetables, which end up on our plates.

Their role in the food chain is so important that in 2007 The National Audit Office collated research working out the value of honeybees to the UK economy.

Honeybees economics

The value of the bees' services were estimated at £200m a year. The retail value of what they pollinate was valued closer to £1bn.

Nobody knows exactly what impact the current decline in honey bee populations is having on these figures and on the supplies of these foods, but it is clear there could be consequences.

"If we had a serious loss of honeybees in the UK, then inevitably food prices would have to increase," according to Simon Potts, head of pollination research at Reading University.

"Essentially we would have to import fruits from overseas.

"Either that or the British diet would have to change considerably. Instead of eating British fruits we'd have to switch to more starchy foods like grains and cereals."

Costs would double

But honeybee populations are declining around the world and so far there seems to be only one other way of pollinating mass numbers of plants.

Bees on their honeycomb
Honeybees contribute 200m to the UK economy free of charge

It involves employing people to go round with feather dusters, brushing the insides of plants with pollen.

They are already doing it in parts of China to pollinate pear trees in areas where the insects are extinct.

Reading University is currently trying to work out how feasible it would be to employ people to hand pollinate plants in the UK.

They are focusing on how much an apple would cost if you paid someone earning the minimum wage.

Early estimates suggest it would more than double the price.

When you consider a single hive of fifty thousand honeybees pollinate half a million plants in one day it is clearly not a practical solution.

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