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Monday, June 21, 1999 Published at 05:40 GMT 06:40 UK


Deadly mite's threat to bees

Bee populations are being wiped out

A new warning has been issued about the threat to the UK's honey bee population from a parasitic mite.

The BBC's Tim Hirsch: A fight for the survival of the honey bee
The British Beekeepers' Association says traditional British crops and wild colonies of bees are all at risk from renewed attacks by the deadly mite varroa.

The blood-sucking parasite, which came to the UK in 1992, attacks bees before the hatch. As the bees grow, so does the parasite, and the bees slowly weaken.

'Vital for environment'

Peter Dalby, Chairman of the association's technical committee, said the microscopic mite was tightening its grip on the British honey bee industry by wiping out hive populations across the country, and could change the face of the countryside.

Mr Dalby, a beekeeper who farms more than 100 hives in Hertfordshire, said varroa was responsible for some keepers losing up to 90% of hive populations.

A typical hive was home to about 80,000 honey bees, which as well as producing honey, are vital for the local environment where they pollinate fruit and plants, he said.

[ image: Bees are needed for crop pollination]
Bees are needed for crop pollination
The British honey industry is worth about £13m a year, and the pollination of crops up to £7bn.

Mr Dalby said varroa, which originated in the Far East and only affects honeybees, could be killed off by two brands of pesticide, but fears are growing that it could become resistant to these as had happened elsewhere in the world.

"Beekeepers are experiencing heavy losses and the mite is continuing its stranglehold," he said. "There have been cases where it has not been seen before right up in Aberdeenshire and on the Northern Ireland coast.

New products

"Kent, Hertfordshire and Essex have all been badly hit, but its the environment that we ought to be most concerned with."

He said he had witnessed the total demise of local wild bee colonies. "Honey bees will decline, birds which eat seeds will starve and the whole face of the countryside will change."

The National Bee Unit at the government's Central Science Laboratory in York is conducting more than £1m of research into varroa.

Scientists are currently carrying out safety check on two new products to fight the mite.

Medwin Bew, head of the unit, said the mite had seriously damaged Britain's beekeeping tradition.

"Hopefully, the arrival of new products will enable beekeepers to cope with infections and manage it, but this is a serious problem."

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