Page last updated at 11:19 GMT, Tuesday, 21 April 2009 12:19 UK

Research money has beekeepers buzzing

By Sarah Mukherjee
Environment correspondent, BBC News

Bees on brood frame, BBC
Spring is always a busy time for honey bees

There is, according to the old proverb, no honey without the sting - but beekeepers across the world are increasingly worried that there will be no honey or sting in years to come, as bee colonies are attacked by a variety of diseases.

On 21 April, the UK government announced that £10m will be spent on research for pollinators - bees, butterflies and other insects - to see if the decline in UK populations can be halted.

We all just hope the research will come in time
Tim Lovett, British Beekeepers' Association

The government is contributing £2m with the rest coming from the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council, the Natural Environment Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the Scottish Government.

Certainly the bee hives in Reigate in Surrey are humming with activity early in the morning, despite the chilly start, on what is promised to be a clear, crisp spring day.

The collection of hives - the apiary - is set in grassland and fruit trees.

Bees, apples and pears are a traditional combination, as there tend to be few pollinators around other than honey bees when the trees are in blossom.

Smoke rings

Indeed, many traditional orchards still have several hives, shaded by the dappled sunlight of the fruit-laden branches that the bees helped create.

It is these tiny creatures' value to the economy that beekeepers are keen to highlight.

Bob Maurer and his bees, BBC
Many beekeepers have lost colonies to disease

"Bees pollinate crops worth potentially hundreds of millions of pounds to British agriculture," says Tim Lovett, president of the British Beekeepers' Association.

"Take a meat pizza - without the bees, all you'd be left with is the bread base, as in many countries cows are fed on pollinated crops like alfafa."

And yet in recent years a series of diseases has affected bee populations in this country and elsewhere.

In many cases we neither know the causes of these illnesses nor the cures for them, but they are having a terrible effect on bee populations.

"We have moved bees across the world, changing their living conditions and spreading diseases," says Bob Maurer, one of the Reigate beekeepers, as he carefully lifts one of the wooden frames to reveal the bees hard at work, surrounding their queen.

"Good bee management is now essential," he adds.

He judiciously uses a few puffs of smoke to keep the bees calm. Because they are woodland creatures, the smoke is a signal that there may be fires around; so they gorge themselves on nectar, making them more docile, in preparation to flee the nest.

'Eleventh hour'

On the frame, hundreds of bees are filling the honeycombs with precious nectar.

While beekeepers are glad that the government has recognised the scale of the problem, they say there has historically been a lack of funding for bee research.

Vital staff have been lost, and their skills take time to replace.

Mr Lovett points out that the vast majority of hives are kept by amateur beekeepers, with just a few hives each; and if dying bee colonies become too widespread they will simply give up their hobby.

"This announcement has come at the 11th hour," says Mr Lovett. "We all just hope the research will come in time."

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