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Page last updated at 11:53 GMT, Friday, 3 July 2009 12:53 UK
The plight of London's humble bees

By Tim Nevard
Chief Executive of Conservation Grade

Honeybees that have been introduced to the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew

Tim Nevard, Chief Executive of Conservation Grade, explains why the bee population has decreased, how you can help and how London can produce the best honey in the world.

London beekeeping is getting more and more popular these days.

Urban bees have a wide range of forage, as the gardens and green spaces in cities contain a rich variety of trees and flowers.

This, and the slightly milder weather, means that the beekeeping season is longer and usually more productive than in rural areas.

It also means honey production is good with the flavour complex and wonderfully unpredictable!

In 2003, honey from the Greater London area won first prize in the open international category at the National Honey Show - so officially it's the best in the world.

London and other British towns and cities can play a key role in helping to bring bees back from the brink.

Planting bee-friendly plants such as rosemary and lavender, as well as early flowering small trees such as cherries and almonds, ensures that a supply of pollen and nectar is available for foraging bees for as long as possible.

Allowing small unkempt patches of grass to develop alongside hedges and bushes also creates places where bumblebees can make their nests.

Chief bee advisor Tony Smith transferring some of the bees to their  new hives at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.
Around 20,000 bees arrive at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew.

A great example of making this work is Jordans' work at the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, where wildflower margins in key areas and been sown, allowing honeybees to be brought back to this part of London after an absence of a year.

Decline of the bee

Bee populations are changing.

It's thought that there used to be 25 species of bumblebee in the UK, but now three are known to be extinct (Bombus cullumanus, B. pomorum and B. subterraneus).

Seven more species are listed on the Biodiversity Action Plan list as being in danger.

Honeybee numbers in the UK have fallen by up to 30% since 2007.

The 70% fall in Bumblebee numbers since the 1970s is largely attributed to the growth of industrial agricultural practices resulting in monocultures of crops, without suitable wildflower habitats for bees, and many other insects, to live on.

But some farmers are helping wildlife on their land and an increasing number of food products are now made from crops grown in a way that protects the countryside and provides food for bees.

Sadly, original wild honeybees (Apis mellifera mellifera) are now thought to be extinct in Britain, but literally millions of domestic strain honeybees are managed by beekeepers each year, which are familiar to all of us buzzing about parks and gardens.

Honeybees in Britain, however, are having a tough time and are increasingly affected by a range of problems including foulbrood; varroa mite; viral diseases and dysfunctional immune systems.

Colony collapse disorder, although widespread globally, does not yet seem to have arrived in the UK.

But just like bumblebees, honeybees are also suffering from the loss of widespread and varied foraging habitats, especially in the countryside.

The value of bees through pollination of crops is thought to be in the region of £1 billion a year and 35% of our own food crops are estimated to be directly dependent on honeybee pollination.

Bumblebees pollinate crops too, especially fruit like tomatoes and apples as well as other crops including oilseed rape and beans.

Some farmers even keep bumblebees in their greenhouses to pollinate crops that are grown all year round, and import southern European bumblebees raised in countries such as Slovakia and Holland.

The concern of conservationists is that this could potentially introduce further pest and disease risk to native British bumblebees.

There are over 300 different species of bee in the UK and bees have been present in Britain for about 30 million years.
Bees are responsible for pollinating a third of the crops we eat.
Bees fly at an average speed of 20 mph, in flight a bee beats its wings around 180 times per minute.
Bees never sleep.
A bee will visit 50-100 flowers during one trip.
A queen bee can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day.
In the UK there are approximately 44,000 beekeepers looking after around 240,000 hives, they produce 6000 tones of honey per year.
We produce only 20% of the honey we consume - the rest is imported.
A survey of British Beekeepers' Association members found honey bee numbers declined by 30% during winter 2007/8 - a loss of more than 2 billion bees at a cost of £54 million to the economy.
The annual economic contribution that bee pollination makes to agriculture in this country is £165 million.
To collect a pound of honey a bee might have to fly a distance equivalent to twice round the world. This is likely to involve more than 10,000 flower visits on perhaps 500 foraging trips.

Evidence in the US shows wild bumblebee numbers have collapsed since the 1990s - following the introduction of parasites carried by European species brought in to pollinate greenhouse crops such as tomatoes and peppers.

As well as decreasing numbers, there are also changes being observed where bumblebees live and how they behave.

The buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) for example has recently been recorded in flight in December and January along the south coast as far east as Ramsgate, as far north as Leicestershire and even North Wales.

This is really unusual, as typically only the queen bee overwinters in holes in the ground.

The suggestion is that global warming is affecting bee behaviour - which may, in turn, affect pollination, flowers, plant survival, fruit, crops and ultimately numerous species of wildlife...including us.

Yellow Bumblebee

Other bumblebees are showing different patterns - the great yellow bumblebee (Bombus distinguendus) was once common throughout Britain, but is now found on the mainland only within half a mile of the extreme north coast of Caithness and Sutherland.

The shrill carder bee (don't you just love that name - it has a higher pitched 'buzz' than other bumblebees!), Bombus sylvarum, is now limited to the Somerset Levels, Salisbury Plain and Thames Estuary.

Since 1980 the formerly common large garden bumblebee, Bombus ruderatus, has been recorded at fewer than 10 sites in the UK; all contributing to a picture of general decline and increasingly fragmented populations.

Why is the decline happening?

Since 1947 we've lost over 97% of those wildflower meadows so common in early descriptions of the British countryside, as they were ploughed-up.

Lavender, and other bee friendly plants, can help the bee population.

Modern agricultural practices also mean there is no need for the old-fashioned rotation of crops (most importantly clover; that bumblebees used to forage on) and widespread use of herbicides has eliminated many wild alternatives.

Bee nesting sites have also gone too.

Some species live in dense grass above ground; others prefer underground cavities - typically abandoned rodent nests.

The removal of hedges and unploughed field margins has affected both by eliminating habitats for the voles and mice that create sites for bee colonies in their abandoned holes.

So much for the bad news though - the good news is that we can do something about it.

Farmers who replant hedgerows, restore grassland and sow wildflowers are helping to make a real difference and reversing these disastrous trends.

Conservation Grade® farmers are a unique group of specially trained environmental farmers paid a premium for their grain to enable them to help the wildlife on their land by planting a range of habitats including wild flowers, hedgerows and even crops specifically for birds to live on in winter.

The original Conservation Grade® farming standard was developed in 1985 under the leadership of Bill Jordan, founder of Jordans Cereals, as a working farmland conservation model for use by Jordans and other UK food companies.

Research has shown that bee numbers increase up to thirteen fold on Conservation Grade® farms by creating the right habitats, which includes a mix of wildflowers and clover.

Effectively that means Conservation Grade® farmers are keeping bees buzzing on over sixty thousand acres of British countryside every year!

In pictures: The Big Buzz at Kew
16 Jun 09 |  Nature & Outdoors
London's living gardens
30 Jun 09 |  Nature & Outdoors



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