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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 February 2008, 10:30 GMT
Panic in the beehive
Honey bees

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

If the UK lost its honey bees the countryside would face devastation, and that is exactly what beekeepers fear could happen.

Imagine a country lane. Hawthorn hedgerow on either side, clouds scudding overhead, apple blossom drifting gently by, the only noise the gentle hum of honey bees and the chirping of birds. What could be a more idyllic vision of British country life?

Then fast-forward 10 years.

The hedgerow is deteriorating, the birds are silent, the orchard is disappearing and the countryside is changed. Why? The hives are empty. Their once-buzzing occupants mysteriously vanished.

Varroa destructor mite
Tracheal mites
Small hive beetle
Israel acute paralysis virus
European foulbrood
Kashmir bee virus
Deformed wing virus

Environment and rural affairs minister Lord Rooker envisaged just such a scenario recently when he warned: "Bee health is at risk and, frankly, if nothing is done about it, the fact is the honey bee population could be wiped out in 10 years."

In a few weeks' time, Britain's thousands of amateur beekeepers will face what might be called "Bee-Day". In the south of England, the weather will be warm enough that apiarists can lift the tops off their hives for the first time and find out if their colonies have survived the winter.

And these beekeepers are worried. Every winter some colonies are lost. But last year saw widespread anecdotal reports of above average losses, and the enthusiasts fear this year could be worse.

Blood-sucking killer

Norman Carreck is both entomologist and beekeeper. And he is one of the anxious.

"Last winter a number of very experienced beekeepers lost colonies in very mysterious circumstances."

One change is in the varroa mite, identified by Lord Rooker as the main threat.

Penelope Keith in beekeeping gear in To The Manor Born
There is a rise in young urban beekeepers, but rural remains the norm

The mite, which latches onto bees and sucks their "blood", arrived in the UK in 1992. Within a few years it had spread throughout the country and took the wild honey bee population to the brink of annihilation. Managed hives were also hit hard.

But having long been kept under control using chemical treatments, there is now a new problem.

"The mites are becoming resistant, there are no good alternatives for treatment," says Carreck.

And as well as varroa, the devil that beekeepers know, there is another cloud on the horizon. Across the Atlantic US honey bees are being wiped out in vast numbers by a mysterious condition that leaves hives deserted.

Amateurs dominate

Scientists are working frantically to identify the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, but UK beekeepers fear it could soon spread to them. One swarm of bees in a ship container might be enough to bring the disease.

"If it did arrive we don't know how to tackle it," says Ivor Davis, an amateur apiarist in Bristol and former president of the British Beekeepers Association, which has 11,000 members. "The government doesn't seem that concerned."

Appeared in US in 2006
Reports in parts of Europe
Exact cause unknown
Hives are found empty
Linked to Israeli acute respiratory virus
Stress could be factor
Varroa mite could be involved

US beekeepers, who make money from taking their bees from state to state for pollination of commercial crops, have been replenishing stocks from Australia. But in the UK, which imports the vast majority of its honey, beekeeping is dominated by amateurs. Many will not be able to afford repeated purchases of new bees in the event of the disease arriving.

"If we give up because it is too hard then the country is in trouble - 99% of beekeepers are hobbyists," says Davis.

Beekeepers want the government to contribute more than the 200,000 it currently spends on research into bee diseases and the 1.8m it spends on the National Bee Unit and inspections of colonies.

Funding plea

The position of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is clear. There is no evidence the US disease is spreading in the UK, and while it does liaise with American scientists, it is awaiting compelling evidence that there should be a big increase in spending.

But if CCD hasn't spread to the UK yet, why are bees dying in greater numbers than usual? The answer, according to many beekeepers, may lie as much with a mixture of erratic unseasonal weather as it does with disease.

Mild winters are not good for bees, says Carreck. A sudden warm snap, as experienced in some parts of England at the weekend. can persuade the bees that spring is here. They venture out and expend energy but find there is no food for them, and then the cold returns.

Honey bee
Keeping bees involves maintaining defences against disease

Chris Slade, from Maiden Newton in Dorset, has been keeping bees for 30 years and blames his higher-than-normal losses on a phenomenon caused by excessively long summers. But he believes the bees will adapt to the erratic weather and that concerns over disease are overstated.

"There is a lot of hyperbole. Beekeeping always goes through periods of prosperity and dearth. People do enjoy a good panic."

But there is no doubt the consequences of a severely depleted honey bee population would be grim.

"Insects are essential for the pollination of a very large proportion of produce," says Carreck. And of the insects, bees are key because of the times of the year they are available to spread pollen.

To take just two examples, the British apple industry would face devastating consequences if there were no bees, while bird populations would also suffer.

Urban honey

The prospect of this catastrophic loss of bees has driven Guardian journalist and beekeeper Alison Benjamin to write her upcoming book A World Without Bees.

Benjamin, who lives in Battersea, is one of a growing number of young, urban-dwelling beekeepers. She has five hives, one at her current flat, one at her old flat, and three at the bottom of her parents' garden.

"It's about bringing a bit of nature into the city. And it's argued they produce better honey in the towns than they do in the countryside."

In the US they are vital to agribusiness, with their owners taking them on a tour of the nation's foodstuffs. First hives might be taken by truck to Massachusetts, Benjamin says, then on to Maine for blueberries, then Florida for oranges and California for almonds.

This constant movement has been blamed for the prevalence of the varroa mite in the US and the spread of disease, as stressed bees come into contact with a plethora of infections.

It is one reason that some believe the UK, which does not have nomadic beekeepers, will not be affected by CCD in the same way.

But at the moment all beekeepers can do is keep their fingers crossed as they wait for their moment of truth on Bee-Day.

The National Geographic channel will broadcast Silence of the Bees at 2200 GMT on Tuesday 12 February.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Went in my only hive on Sunday, because they should have been flying, and they were all dead and had been for I guess about 4 weeks. No idea why, they had food as I was feeding them sugar syrup.
Andrew Brookes, Sheffield

Imagine astronomers telling the powers that be that an asteroid will hit the earth in five years time. 'That's terrible' say the politicians, 'everybody will be wiped out'. And then they do exactly nothing. This is the behaviour of Lord Rooker. They have have effectively closed down honey bee research at Rothamsted. And just at the point when a product developed by the scientists was shown to be effective against varroa. Beekeepers on the continent are supported and helped because the politicians recognise the importance of honeybees. This government just sees the number of beekeepers as not significant enough to worry about at elections. When the countryside no longer has birdsong we will all know the reason why.
Wally Thrale, Bedfordshire

What an alarmist article. The demise of honey bees in the UK will not result in crops and other flowers not being pollinated, and birds starving. A lot of pollinators are bumblebees, solitary bees, various wasps, flies etc. While some crops may be affected to some extent, one would see little difference in the countryside. In fact, some of the other pollinators may benefit by the 'removal' of their honeybee competitors.
Tony P., Oxford, UK

I'm somewhat surprised at this representation of the problem - I first heard this news around three years ago, when the fashionable theory was that the bees were being affected by the increased electromagnetic activity from mobile phones and wireless internet access, to the extent that my brother refused to put wifi in his house as a precaution. But there is strong evidence emerging from US studies that CCD is liable to be the result of an emergent virus: the Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus. Rather than continuing to insist that CCD is a mystery, we should be supporting calls for the Bee Unit to be properly funded, so that its inspectorate can run a sensible testing regime to ensure that this virus does not get a hold here.
Marie Pendle, South Woodham Ferrers, UK

Wasn't it a certain gentleman by the name of Albert Einstein who claimed that if the bee was wiped out, the end of civilisation would take eight years? Shall we wait and see or should we do something about it?
Robert, Swansea

The use of GM crops shouldn't be permitted until they are proved to be safe for bees. I certainly wouldn't be surprised if it turned out that they were responsible for the decline of bee populations in the USA.
Jane Cook, Ashford, Middlesex, UK

Regarding the bees ability to sustain over 30 million years. The climate is now going through changes unlike anything seen in 30 million years. When will people wake up to how widespread and dangerous the effects of climate change really are?
Matthew, London, England

Is this not how natural selection works? Survival of the fittest is how we all got here in the first place, and it is that way we will go. The question is - do we fight natural selection or do we accept evolutionary change? Only the strong shall survive, we're all animals after all.
A Booyse, Stevenage

I have a friend in Minneapolis who let's his bees die out every winter instead of over wintering them because it's cheaper and easier... typical. This is the start of the third year I have been keeping bees, they have been out and about in swarms already this year. If we look after them, they will look after us.
Carolyn, Leicestershire

Can this varroa mite be trained to go for MPs instead?
Barry, Sleaford

I am a London beekeeper and am surprised that though Lord Rooker has recognised the many threats to honeybees his department (DEFRA) has refused to provide just 8 million over five years to carry out some vital research. Remember that over this same period bees will contribute more than 800 million to the economy in their pollination of crops. I find the Government's complacency staggering - it's a relatively small amount and the consequences of the demise of honeybees would be catastrophic. How can they be so complacent?
Maurice Melzak, London

It's true the disastrous crash in the bee population may never happen, but in reality nobody actually knows. CCD has been devastating elsewhere so can we afford to take that risk? Any money spent on research to mitigate that risk surely has to be a good investment. But are Britain's beekeepers not capable of co-ordinating their own fund-raising efforts to provide some of the research funds? The British Beekeepers Association is a charity after all. There's no time to waste arguing with Lord Rooker.
Chris B, Bromsgrove, Worcestershire

The powers that 'bee' should look at other causses of the decline of the bee such as the microwaves that bombard the environment. Bees depend on magnetic and emf to communicate and fly and they would get confused due to the microwaves that we all use to communicate. If the bees decline then we should be afraid - very afraid!
Tes, Northampton

I had bees swarming in my back garden last weekend (it was warm and I was suprised) don't know where they ended up?
Matt Roberts, Tonbridge, England

Since when was Penelope Keith a young urban beekeeper? From a young urban beekeeper smiling in the face of adversity.
Clare Male, Norwich, UK

I had a common red tail bees nest in my front garden up until last May 2007, when suddenly it emptied. It had never emptied this early or so suddenly before. I am hoping the bees will come back this Spring, and I have put a bee box near the old site. I continue to plant bee friendly plants but I haven't seen a single bee since last May, not even visitors. I intend to plant a 30 feet long "trench" of lavendar in the front garden to help things along.
Helen Cronin, Pyrford, Woking, Surrey

Typical - why can't they find a mite to infect wasps nests!
Keith Wassell, Knockholt

When will the government wake up and consider problems that are real. I feel confident that I speak for a large percentage of people who find problems like this far more important than if the new Olympic stadium will have enough bars and vending machines in it. How can it be justified that billions are spent on wars/Olympics against people's desires and nothing on actual problems like the one mentioned.
Aaron Minton, London

History has a habit of repeating itself. In the early 1900s the British honey bee was wiped out by the "Isle of Wight" disease caused by a tracheal mite infestation on the honey bee. Sounds very familiar. The government of today knows that a new threat is looming, and the consequences of that threat, but has stated to the British Bee Keepers Association (BBKA) that it is not going to invest any more money (1 million) into research for the proctection of British honey bees, than it already does. In fact it wants to decrease the existing funding to save money. No amount of money could bring back the old British Black Bee and no amount of money will replace the existing British Bee population when that too becomes extinct in the near future.

Any one who would like to donate 1m pounds to the BBKA, for the amateurs to do the government's work for them and save the British bee population from extinction "again" please step forward and earn the gratitude of all bee keepers, farmers, food producers who rely on crop pollination from bees, honey lovers and environmentalist.
Martin Howells, Newport Gwent

I took up bee keeping two years ago and found it fun and very rewarding. To be honest this is just doom and gloom scaremongery by the press and news agencies. The bees will bounce back I mean they've managed to survive over 30 million years without our help.
Ade, Cardiff

I pity the poor bees in America, being shipped around here there and everywhere. The constant changes in environment, food and atmosphere can't be good for probably shown by the emergence of CCD. If you felt like you were being pimped to various farmers, constantly then you'd probably buzz off too. I just wish I had somewhere to keep bees.
James B (no pun intended), Sheffield, UK

Beekeepers on their fears for their bees

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