The alarming decline in bees
In total the value of Europe's insect pollinators is estimated at €14.2 billion. In some regions where fields are large and there are few hedgerows (in which queens forage in spring and build their nests) crop yields are already falling.
We need to;
More from Sussex Wildlife Trust factsheet (pdf)
- Encourage farmers to adopt appropriate agri-environmental schemes. These actually benefit farmers by improving crop yields at the same time as enriching the countryside.
- Support the replanting of hedgerows and the recreation of hay meadow and flower-rich grass- lands
- Use wildflowers and traditional cottage-garden plants in gardens nationwide
- Manage roadside verges and motorway embankments to encourage wild flowers and cut less often The solution is simple! By whatever means possible we need to create a mosaic of suitable habitat across the whole of the UK. Bumblebees need small patches of wildflowers here and there in field corners, margins, gardens, waste ground, road- side verges and motorway embankments
January 10th 2014 ~ Just how bad is the bee deficiency in Europe?
The researcher Simon Potts of the University of Reading told The Guardian that we face a catastrophe in future years unless we act now.
"We need a proper strategy across Europe to conserve wild bees and pollinators through habitat protection, agricultural policy and farming methods, or we risk big financial losses to the farming sector and a potential food security crisis"There are now only enough beehives to meet a quarter of demand in Britain. The Guardian article suggests that the big decline in honeybees in recent decades involves the role of pesticides, habitat loss and disease - and also because of the thoughtless replacement of wind-pollinated cereal crops by biofuel crops such as oil seed rape. In the study published in the journal PLoS One, almost half the countries studied had bee deficits.UK ministers voted against the ban on three neonicotinoids - but they will be banned from use on flowering crops such as corn, oilseed rape and sunflowers for two years.
April 2013 ~Three Bee-harming pesticides banned in Europe
EU member states vote ushers in continent-wide suspension of neonicotinoid pesticides: thiamethoxam, clothianidin and imidacloprid. See Guardian.
In March,research strongly linked the pesticides to the serious decline in honey bee numbers in the US and UK - a drop of around 50% in the last 25 years. Bees pollinate at least a third of the food we eat.
Scientists found that bees consuming one pesticide suffered an 85% loss in the number of queens their nests produced, while another study showed a doubling in "disappeared" bees – those that failed to return from food foraging trips. The significance of the new work, published in Science, is that it is the first carried out in realistic, open-air conditions.
March 14th 2011 ~ UN takes very seriously the decline in bees
A UN Environment Programme report (pdf) says:
"The way humanity manages or mismanages its nature-based assets, including pollinators, will in part define our collective future in the 21st century. The fact is that of the 100 crop species that provide 90 per cent of the world’s food, over 70 are pollinated by bees"The UNEP report says new kinds of virulent fungal pathogens that can be deadly to bees are now migrating from one region to another becasue of globalisation while 20,000 flowering plant species many bee species depend on will be lost without greater conservation efforts. There has been a 70 per cent drop in key wildflowers in the last 40 years. Air pollution and the increasing use of chemicals in agriculture is being found to damage bees' immune systems and insecticides and fungicides can act together to be 1,000 times more toxic to bees affecting the sense of direction, memory and brain metabolism. More here. The loss of bees worldwide is one of the issues discussed by Richard Heinberg in his engaging talk at Totnes last week "The end of Growth"
January 2011 ~ "The abundance of four common species of bumblebee in the US has dropped by 96% in just the past few decades, according to the most comprehensive national census of the insects. "
Guardian "Scientists said the alarming decline, which could have devastating implications for the pollination of both wild and farmed plants, was likely to be a result of disease and low genetic diversity in bee populations. Bumblebees are important pollinators of wild plants and agricultural crops around the world including tomatoes and berries thanks to their large body size, long tongues, and high-frequency buzzing, which helps release pollen from flowers. Bees in general pollinate some 90% of the world's commercial plants, including most fruits, vegetables and nuts. Coffee, soya beans and cotton are all dependent on pollination by bees to increase yields. It is the start of a food chain that also sustains wild birds and animals...." read in full
October 8th 2010 ~ "Both the virus and the fungus proliferate in cool, damp weather, and both do their dirty work in the bee gut.."
The New York Times reports on the very successful cooperation between the US "defense machinery of the post-Sept. 11 Homeland Security Department and academia". They teamed up to address the problem of bee colony collapse - a problem, says the NYT, that "both sides say they might never have solved on their own".
"...the Army/Montana team, using a new software system developed by the military for analyzing proteins, uncovered a new DNA-based virus, and established a linkage to the fungus, called N. ceranae. ...The Army software system - an advance itself in the growing field of protein research, or proteomics - is designed to test and identify biological agents in circumstances where commanders might have no idea what sort of threat they face. The system searches out the unique proteins in a sample, then identifies a virus or other microscopic life form based on the proteins it is known to contain. The power of that idea in military or bee defense is immense, researchers say, in that it allows them to use what they already know to find something they did not even know they were looking for."Read in full
October 7th 2010 ~ Well done DEFRA for taking seriously the need to help increasing numbers of new beekeepers
More and more people are setting up as backyard beekeepers. DEFRA has helped fund a volunteer force os 400 volunteer bee experts to teach beekeepers good husbandry. The Government’s Healthy Bees Plan will be run in partnership by the British Beekeeping Association (BBKA) and National Diploma of Beekeeping Board (NDBB) See DEFRA news
January 8th 2010 ~Loss of forage - not pesticides - responsible, says newly published summary of evidence
The Ecologist reports that in a newly published summary of the evidence behind bee colony losses, published in the journal Science, Professor Ratniek from the University of Sussex, the UK's only professor of apiculture, said pesticides had been seriously considered and stimulated much research but were not the most important cause. He thought that it was the diminishing amount of forage available to honey bee populations as a result of the intensification of farming rather than pesticides that was likely to be their biggest long-term threat. "If you want a healthy beehive they need an abundant food supply. In the UK there has been a fall in flowers due to the intensification of farmland and similarly so in the US." Read in full
Jan 2010 A round-up of latest science thinking on honey bee colony collapse from University of Sussex bee lab
January 2010 ~ Recent good news is that the illegal registration of the pesticide spirotetramat has been successfully challenged in the US.
The court found that EPA "utterly failed" to comply with the law and gave "no explanation whatsoever for these shortcomings." The court's order goes into effect on January 15, 2010, and makes future sales of Movento illegal in the United States. We read on the switchboard.nrdc.org website that "EPA's review of Bayer's scientific studies found that trace residues of Movento brought back to the hive by adult bees could cause 'significant mortality' and 'massive perturbation' to larvae"
January 2010 ~ Girolami has found concentrations of insecticide in clouds above seeding machines 1,000 times the dose lethal to bees
www.e360.yale.edu "...University of Padua entomologist Vincenzo Girolami believes he may have discovered an unexpected mechanism by which neonicotinoids - despite their novel mode of application - do in fact kill bees. In the spring, neonicotinoid-coated seeds are planted using seeding machines, which kick up clouds of insecticide into the air. "The cloud is 20 meters wide, sometimes 50 meters, and the machines go up and down and up and down," he says. "Bees that cross the fields, making a trip every ten minutes, have a high probability of encountering this cloud. If they make a trip every five minutes, it is certain that they will encounter this cloud."
And the result could be immediately devastating. In as-yet-unpublished research, Girolami has found concentrations of insecticide in clouds above seeding machines 1,000 times the dose lethal to bees. In the spring, when the seed machines are working, says Girolami, "I think that 90 percent or more of deaths of bees is due to direct pesticide poisoning."
Girolami has also found lethal levels of neonicotinoids in other, unexpected - and usually untested - places, such as the drops of liquid that treated crops secrete along their leaf margins, which bees and other insects drink. (The scientific community has yet to weigh in on Girolami's new, still-to-be-published research, but Pettis, who has heard of the work, calls it "a good and plausible explanation.")
Oct 30 2009 ~ Will Syngenta funded research have sufficiently wide terms of reference?
David Taylor (Labour, Leicestershire North West) questioned yesterday whether a study into bee health would be free from bias after it emerged it was being partly funded by Syngenta, a company that produces pesticides. He asked whether the University of Warwick research would have "sufficiently wide terms of reference" to examine the link between pesticides and Britain's declining bee population. Dan Norris, the junior environment minister, acknowledged the concerns but insisted the "highest possible standards" would be maintained. (Read Hansard extract)
Oct 12 2009 ~ neonicotinoids are now the most widely used group of insecticides in the United States, despite concerns voiced by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
www.motherearthnews.com ".... The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identifies two specific neonicotinoids, imidacloprid and clothianidin, as highly toxic to bees. Both chemicals cause symptoms in bees such as memory loss, navigation disruption, paralysis and death.
Both chemicals have been linked in dramatic honeybee deaths and subsequent suspensions of their use in France and Germany. Several European countries have already suspended them. Last year Slovenia and Italy also suspended their use for what they consider a significant risk to honeybee populations.
While Bayer CropScience, the primary producer of both pesticides, maintains honeybee deaths reported in Europe were caused by unusual application errors, they don't dispute the proven toxicity of their products. Instead, they maintain bees do not encounter enough of an exposure to cause harm. Now even that assertion is under the microscope..." More
Sept 30 2009 ~ "Vanishing of the Bees" will be released in Britain next month
The Independent reports on a film which claims the cause is the use of a new generation of pesticide, neonicotinoid pesticides, which include imidacloprid (marketed under the trade name Gaucho) This has been banned in France following pressure from beekeepers but is still in use in Britain, the US and elsewhere.
Neonicotinoids are applied to seeds and enter into the plants themselves, affecting the insects that consume them. In theory, insects that are not pests should not be affected. But "Vanishing of the Bees" says long-term, low-level exposure to these compounds may just be the last straw for the bees. The film targets Bayer in particular.
Sept 16 2009 ~ "To help reverse the worrying decline in the UK bee population..."
The Co-operative has launched Plan Bee, a 10 point plan that includes action on pesticides, actions on farms, funding research and inspiring individuals to make a difference. "Vanishing of the Bees" is a film that starts its round of the UK in London and Belfast on Oct 9. Extract from website:
"...... thousands of beekeepers around the globe have come out of the bee yard and admitted to the same problem, with some reporting losses of more than 90 percent of their colonies. And there are no dead bees to be found. It is estimated that CCD has resulted in the death of more than one quarter of the 2.4 million bee colonies in at least 35 states across America. The Vanishing Bees unfolds as a dramatic tale of science and mysterySee website: http://vanishingbees.co.uk/
So why are the bees dying now? This question merits a lengthy and well thought out response which covers massive differences of opinion among scientists, farmers, beekeepers and government agencies. Our film looks at CCD from the viewpoint of the beekeeper as well as from the perspective of hard science...."
August 25 2009 ~ ribosome damage caused by picorna-like viruses may leave bees especially vulnerable
The Times reports on a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Scientists have examined the way genes are switched on and off in the guts of bees from hives that later fall victim to CCD.
"They found that compared with bees from unaffected hives, the CCD bees had abnormally high levels of fragmentation in a genetic chemical called ribosomal RNA (rRNA). This is used to build ribosomes, structures found in all living cells which manufacture proteins using genetic instructions written into DNA. The fragmented rRNA suggests that the bees suffered from degraded ribosomes, in a fashion consistent with damage caused by picorna-like viruses. The scientists also found that bees from CCD hives had "more than their fair share" of infection with these viruses, according to May Berenbaum, of the University of Illinois, who led the study. Picorna-like viruses, she said, in effect "hijack the ribosome" of bees to take over these protein factories, which are then used to make viral proteins, rather than those that the bees need themselves. One of the viruses in the picorna-like group is Israeli acute paralysis virus, which has previously been suspected as the primary cause of CCD. Dr Berenbaum said that while the viruses may not kill infected bees outright, the ribosome damage they cause may leave the insects especially vulnerable to other stresses and infections..."Read in full.
July 20 2009 ~ " it would be far better if they allowed us to treat our bees as we used to do. "
A letter in today's Independent reveals one bee-keeper's irritation with DEFRA's regulations. Defra has stung the beekeepers The letter, from a beekepper in Norfolk, says:
"Defra may think they have gone into battle for British bees by opening a website to tell beekeepers what to do (letters, 17 July) , but it would be far better if they allowed us to treat our bees as we used to do.
We used to treat them annually against nosema; now this is illegal. We used to sterilise the empty frames in the winter, and protect them from waxmoth; this is now not allowed. And by the time it became legal to treat the bees against the varroa mite, the treatment had become useless. Also, there have been suggestions that bees may be called "food-producing animals" and that all bees will have to be treated personally by vets (our vet was rather startled).
My bees are, fortunately, very healthy at present, but it is the result of good luck, and no thanks to Defra."
July 10 2009 ~ Soil Association is calling on the Government to protect honeybees and ban neonicotinoid pesticides.
On the relevant page here they say "To lend your voice to our campaign, please complete the information below and click Save. We'll then send you an automatically generated email containing a link - you'll need to click on the link to confirm your signature."
July 6 2009 ~ Honeybee parliamentary group to hold its first meeting amid fears that £10m funding will fail to stop the insect's decline
The Guardian: "..A third of the UK's honeybees were wiped out last year. A group of MPs will on Wednesday join forces to fight for funding save the honeybee. Led by the Conservative MP, John Penrose, the all-party parliamentary group on honeybees will hold its inaugural meeting amid fears that the £10m of funding announced this year for research into pollinators will fail to tackle the decline in our most important pollinator, the honeybee. Following a concerted campaign by British beekeepers, various funders, including the government, the Wellcome Trust, the National Environmental Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, put up cash, but the fund's remit will cover other pollinators such as bumblebees and moths, which are also under threat. "We don't want to ignore bumble bees and moths, but in terms of being the most numerous and important pollinators, the heavy lifting is done by honeybees," said Penrose. "It's a huge unknown as to why they have been declining at an alarming rate. There are a number of theories from new pests to agricultural practices and climate change but no one has found the answer."..." MoreAlthough the UK government blamed poor weather and the parasitic varroa mite for the honeybee's demise, he added that this has not been conclusively proven.
Thursday May 21 2009 - "The problem with the bees is the monoculture situation": Michael Pollan
On this very engaging short video clip, Michael Pollan explains how bees now have to be transported across country to almond crops since, except when they blossom, there is nothing for the bees to eat for 50 weeks of the year. "We need to plant bee habitat where we grow our crops. If you're gonna be growing almonds, then a certain percentage of land needs to be devoted to wildflowers or whatever the bees want."
May 18 2009 ~ Have others noticed the arrival of the black bee?
As the bee page reports, bee populations fell by 30 per cent in the winter of 2007-08 DEFRA's £4.3m promised expenditure on research into the decline will be added to by the Co-op who is putting forward a 10-point "Plan Bee". The Independent today looks at the native black bee. which was
".... used for centuries as the honey-producing bee but was replaced by more productive bees from Italy and eastern Europe in the 19th century. The Co-op Group... is putting £10,000 into the project as part of its 10-point Plan Bee. "Native black honeybees are considered by some beekeepers to be more aggressive and poorer at producing honey than foreign strains," the Co-op said. "But over tens of thousands of years, the native black honeybee has evolved thick black hair and a larger body to help keep it warm in a cooler climate, and a shorter breeding season to reflect the UK summer. With careful selection, they are good-tempered and good honey-producers."
May 2 2009 ~ "any suggestion that GM crops and pesticides may be causing the decline of honeybees is met with heated denial from the proponents."
"...Certainly, honeybees are declining both in areas where GM crops are widely grown, and in other areas where GM crops are released in small test plots. Is there a common thread that links both areas? Yes there is, the universal use of systemic pesticide seed dressing in GM crops and conventional crops; in particular, the widespread application of a relatively new class of systemic insecticides - the neonicotinoids - that are highly toxic to insects including bees at very low concentrations. Systemic pesticide seed dressings protect the newly sprouted seed at a vulnerable time in the plant's development. Seed dressings include systemic insecticides and fungicides, which often act synergistically in controlling early seedling pests.
The neonicotinoid insecticides include imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, clothianidin, and several others. Imidacloprid is used extensively in seed dressing for field and horticultural crops, and particularly for maize, sunflower and rapeseed (canola). Imidacloprid was detected in soils, plant tissues and pollen using HPLC coupled to a mass spectrometer. The levels of the insecticide found in pollen suggested probable delirious effects on honeybees . For several years since 2000, French and Italian beekeepers have been noticing that imidacloprid is lethal to bees, and the insecticide is suspected to be causing the decline of hive populations by affecting the bee's orientation and ability to return to the hive. ..." Read in full As an emailer says, "...several European countries, including France, Italy and Germany, have banned some pesticides, but that Hilary Benn on Farming Today recently said "we haven't seen any evidence that [pesticides] have an adverse impact on bees".
May 1 2009 ~ BEE DECLINE "... there is also a concern about the possible effect of pesticides on bees."
Ed Vaisey, Wantage's MP, spoke yesterday (Hansard):
"...One of the features of colony collapse disorder is that one does not come to the hive and find a lot of dead bees; one comes to the hive and finds no bees. They have not necessarily been killed by the varroa mite.
There is a theory that pesticides destroy bees' brains, making it harder for them to find their way home. It is interesting that urban bees are doing better than rural bees. Some people posit the theory that that is because there are fewer pesticides in an urban environment..."
March 10 2009 ~ Jane Kennedy says,"Bees are just about the most hard working of insects"
Her evident approval of the honey bee work ethic is quoted in The Western Morning News
"They help put food on our plates as they produce honey and pollinate other plants, many of which produce food themselves. We need to do all we can to safeguard the health of honey bees...."and the article speaks of a "10-year blueprint to protect and improve the health of honey bees" involving the "tracking down" of the UK's amateur beekeepers
"They will be told of the need to alert the National Bee Unit (NBU) to bee health problems and encourage them to register on BeeBase, its beekeepers database."On March 6, in answering a question from Tim Farron about how much DEFRA was spending on research into CCD and varroa, she told the House of Commons (Hansard) "the syndrome called colony collapse disorder in the USA are currently unclear and we have no current evidence to suggest that it is occurring in the UK."
March 6 2009 ~ Hansard - Bees: Research
Tim Farron: To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs how much his Department has spent on research into (a) colony collapse disorder and (b) the varroa destructor mite in each of the last six years. 
Jane Kennedy: The causes of the syndrome called colony collapse disorder in the USA are currently unclear and we have no current evidence to suggest that it is occurring in the UK. DEFRA provided an additional £27,000 to the National Bee Unit for work related to abnormal colony losses in 2007-08 and, with the Welsh Assembly Government, provided £120,000 in the current year to continue this work. DEFRA funded a project on the fungal control of Varroa jacobsoni (destructor) between 2002 and 2006 at a cost of £383,802.
March 4 2009 ~ The feral honey bee population is reported to have been largely wiped out by disease in the last 15 years.
From today's NAO report. "It has been estimated that there are 44,000 beekeepers in the UK, with a total of 274,000 hives. Of these some 300 are commercial beekeepers (members of the Bee Farmers Association) with 50,000 hives. The remainder are keen amateurs. 100 years ago there were around 1million bee hives; this had reduced to 400,000 in the 1950s and further reduced to the 274,000 today. It is estimated for the UK that the pollination services from honey bees are worth 3120-200 million annually and honey production is worth an additional 310-30 million (Defra, 2008). The feral honey bee population is reported to have been largely wiped out by disease in the last 15 years......The issue of bee health is currently high on the agenda of many countries due to an increase in the level of colony mortality......with increased incidence of any particular pest or disease or combination of these (e.g. Nosema and Distorted wing virus), potentially in relation to other stress factors such as apicultural or agricultural pesticides. Since this is also the approach being taken by researchers of CCD in USA and elsewhere, contact should be maintained between NBU and these other groups so that results can be shared; a standardized research protocol would aid in comparing results from different groups....
....The current Defra consultation exercise and future strategy should aim to identify what exactly is required or expected from the bee industry and therefore provide a baseline against which performance and progress could be measured. This would allow the activities of the NBU and the bee keepers to be better targeted in the future. There are a number of areas where information appears to be lacking and future research should focus on this...." Read report in full
March 1 2009 ~ Petition request
We have received an email asking for support for the petition at www.petitiononline.com. Extract: "..One pesticide by itself might not destroy honey bees, but what happens when farmers spray herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and rodenticides on land that also has genetically modified crops with pesticides built-in? ...".
November 14 2008 ~ The risk to bees from neonicotinoid pesticides - the level of risk is "acceptable" ??
When DEFRA was asked by Peter Ainsworth yesterday about what assessment had been made on "the effect of neonicotinoid pesticides on the honeybee population" he merely received the reply " I refer the hon. Member to the answers given on 11 June 2008, Official Report, column 273W, and 29 October 2008, Official Report, column 1024W." (Hansard) And "those answers" to Norman Baker's original question on 11th June? It is here.
Defra's argument that its approach to the regulation and control of pesticides is 'reasonable, logical and lawful in all the circumstances' looks increasingly dubious. Certainly, in his ruling, on Georgina Down's application below for a judicial review, the judge is reported as saying that the 1986 Control of Pesticides Regulations says beekeepers must be given 48 hours notice if pesticides harmful to bees were to be used.
November 5 2008 ~ While France initiates measures to protect bees, DEFRA says it cannot afford to increase research
Hundreds of members of the British Beekeepers' Association (says today's Independent) are delivering a petition to No 10, signed by more than 140,000 members of the public, calling for increased research funding into the worrying level of bee mortality and colony collapse disorder. Instead of the £200,000 spent annually on bee health research at present, they are asking for £1.6m annually for the next five years. The association says pollination by bees would be worth £825 million to the agricultural economy over five years - but the request is coming up against DEFRA's insistence that it can't afford to help (See also our bee page).
In contrast, France's Agriculture Minister, Michel Barnier, promised in October that 26 measures would be put in place to try to halt the gradual extinction of bees, including the creation of an "Institute of the bee" whose task will be develop research programs and carry out analyses. The priority will be to target the various diseases which decimate bee species (varroase, nosemose, and the virus diseases) and to ensure the protection of both plants and the insects by increasing research. The french government has actually created the post of "Mr Bee" in the person of Jean-Pierre Comparot. (See french report)
October 3 2008 ~ Neonicotinoids killing bees
We read on the Smallholders Online newsletter that neonicotinoid pesticides are still being widely used in the spraying of English sugar beet crops. Beekeepers are advised to check that the sugar they using as sugar syrup in the Autumn is cane sugar and not beet sugar, at least until this latest pesticide concern has been investigated. See also "Soil Association calls for urgent ban on dangerous pesticides linked to honey bee deaths"
September 10 2008 ~ Bee keepers are opening their hives and finding them virtually empty
Independent ".....According to the British Beekeepers' Association (BBKA), up to a third of Britain's 240,000 hives failed to survive last winter and spring due to disease and poor weather. The result is a drop of more than 50 per cent in honey production across the country..." But the consequences go way beyond a reduced amount of honey in the supermarkets. See also below
June 25 2008 ~ "Defra must be stung into action over missing bees"
Telegraph letter today
Sir - Prompted by reports of problems facing bee-keepers, and the apparent indifference of Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I conducted a bee survey in my well-stocked garden.More on the alarming decline in bees below
On a warm, sunny day, I found no honey bees at all in this corner of mid-Warwickshire. I have repeated the exercise three times, with the same result. With such a dearth of natural pollinators, what plant species will be under threat in years to come?
When will Defra be stung into action to provide the research that is patently required?
Robin Bussell, Stoneleigh, Warwickshire
June 19 2008 ~ 30% fewer bees "varroa and foul brood akin to foot and mouth disease in bees..the Government must wake up...."
The average loss of bees this winter was 30 per cent. which is three times the expected level. Something is happening to honey bees across the world as well as the UK. There was an entire debate , on June 17 thanks both to Dr. Ian Gibson, MP for Norwich North, and the British Beekeepers' Association (BBKA - see below).
"...The demise of the honey bee...there would be a major impact on the environment and wildlife, which depend on bees to pollinate fruits and seeds for their survival..."Dr Gibson explained that Lord Rooker had met representatives of the BBKA last December but flatly turned down their request for vital funding. Britain's leading bee virus researcher was made redundant by Rothamsted Research due to lack of follow-on funding from DEFRA. The Department, said Dr Gibson, "has stonewalled the requests of the BBKA, which, as a result, has mounted a public campaign... One can hardly pick up a supplement these days without seeing bees sitting on plants and a discussion of the issues. The Government have to wake up to the green political capital that they could gain by finding the rather modest sums required to bring about a far-sighted programme. .." Read the debate
June 2 2008 ~ "Pollination, largely by honey bees, contributes £165 million a year to the agricultural economy." Last winter one in five colonies perished.. but there is no commitment to funding
An article in the Mail on Sunday by Vince Cable echoes a growing concern about the global decline of bees. " A mystery plague is threatening Britain's bees," he says, "and the result could be worse than foot and mouth." As we wrote below in May, one dangerous insecticide has been replaced by another. A Parliamentary Answer from Jonathan Shaw on May 21 said, "a contingency plan for exotic pests and diseases of honey bees has been developed with stakeholders" and, on the same day, the Countess of Mar received this answer in the House of Lords:
"A Bee Health Research Funders' Forum has been created to discuss priorities. Defra, the National Bee Unit and the British Beekeepers' Association participate along with other interested parties. Research priorities are also addressed in the draft bee health strategy, which is currently available for public consultation."..which all sounds responsible and concerned - until one reads that in spite of the DefraSpeak wording - 'sharing, prioritising, working together, liaison' - there is no real money. The British Beekeepers' Association (BBKA) response to the consultation document was gloomy;
" ...despite its advice to DEFRA there are substantial short comings and omissions in the strategy. .... the BBKA has no confidence in government's commitment to funding additional work and services needed to keep our honey bees healthy.."BBKA wants £8 million to be spent over five years. When one remembers Albert Einstein's now much quoted remark that "if bees were to disappear, man would only have a few years to live" the price seems reasonable. See also Early Day Motion
May 22 2008 ~ mass death of bees in southern Germany blamed on insecticide
Farming Today reports that Germany has banned the use of "one of Europe's most common pesticides. A mass death of bees in southern Germany is being blamed on an insecticide which is regularly applied to the seeds of crops like maize and oil-seed rape." The programme asked, "With Britain's bees in sharp decline could farmers be unwittingly contributing to their mass death?"
Thanks to the Smallholders Online newsletter (No. 248), we read that ".... "Gaucho", a broad-spectrum insecticide made by the Germany-based chemical giant Bayer, was banned in France in 1999 due to its toxicity to bees and other forms of life -- including humans -- but its replacement, "Regent", from another German giant, BASF, is just as dangerous say beekeepers and biologists." More
Bill Wiggin asked DEFRA's Minister yesterday what research has been commissioned into beekeeping and bee health in the past few years - and what research is to be commissioned in each of the next five years. Jonathan Shaw's answer seems oddly unconcerned in view of Albert Einstein's now much quoted remark that "if bees were to disappear, man would only have a few years to live"
A round-up of latest science thinking on honey bee colony collapse from University of Sussex bee labDate 26 January 2010
Concerted effort needed to save the honey bee
Perhaps the most accurate thing about Albert Einstein's pronouncement on the importance of bees - "if the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left." - is that he never said it.
It's an aphorism often quoted in the many media reports on honey bee losses, along with apocalyptic headlines warning of economic and ecological disaster if the honey bee disappears for good.
The honey bee is both a native British insect and a vital part of our agriculture and food chain. It is certainly true that honey bee colonies are dying across the world - and their complete demise would have devastating consequences for all flowering plants and the production of food (honey bees pollinate many food crops). There is a worrying downward trend in hive numbers in Britain, down from one million a century ago to 250,000 today, with similar declines in the USA. In addition, there have been many reports of large numbers of hives dying in various parts of the world. But as yet there is no agreement on a definitive cause of this phenomenon.
What does scientific research really make of these recent losses of honey bee colonies?
Professor of Apiculture Francis Ratnieks and his team at the University of Sussex Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects (LASI) are currently working on the Sussex Plan - a five-year programme of bee biology research, applied research into honey bee breeding and disease management and outreach to beekeepers, schools and local communities. The aim is to help the honey bee: research has already begun into breeding more hygienic bees and determining where bees forage.
Here, Professor Ratnieks and research colleague Norman Carreck, a leading authority on apiculture and bee science, provide an overview of the latest thinking, and stress the need for a "joined-up" strategy to save the honey bee from further decline.
Honey bees are being killed off by something called Colony Collapse Disorder, aren't they?
It's not helpful to describe all honey bee decline as "Colony Collapse Disorder". The term CCD was coined to describe a specific set of symptoms in USA bee hives. Commercially reared honey bees are responsible for pollinating huge numbers of crops in the USA, where the California almond crop, pollinated by one million bee colonies specially shipped in for the job, is worth £2 billion alone. To this day, no one knows what the cause of CCD is, although a combination of pathogens is the most likely cause.
So CCD is just a part of the problem?
Yes. The challenge is that there seems to be no unifying cause to colony collapse globally, but interaction between multiple factors, such as weather patterns, availability of forage (the flowers bees need for nectar and pollen), quality of forage, pesticides, pests and diseases. More research needs to be done into all of these contributing factors - far more than is being undertaken currently.
Pesticides are a likely cause of bee death, surely - in trying to poison the "bad" pests that eat our crops, we also kill helpful insects such as bees?
A group of pesticides called neonicatinoids have been blamed for extensive colony collapse. These chemicals were banned in France, but colony losses have continued there. So it is unlikely that these chemicals themselves are causing colony collapse. Rather than killing bees outright, however, pesticides might be working against honey bees in subtler ways, by making them more susceptible to disease. Herbicides don't directly kill honey bees, but they are part of modern intensive agriculture which has resulted in reduced numbers of flowers in the countryside. Bees get their food - pollen and nectar - from flowers.
A lot of attention has been given to various possible causes, ranging from mobile phone microwaves and the development of GM crops, but none of these suggestions offers a credible explanation for honey bee colony losses.
Could we be looking at a new disease, then?
It's unlikely that we are looking for a micro-organism not already known to scientists. In December comprehensive surveys of honey bee losses were carried out in 16 countries in North America and Europe. A definitive explanation for these losses is still elusive, but the belief is that the interaction between existing pests and pathogens are still the most important cause of colony collapse.
A mite called Varroa destructor, a parasite originally confined to the Asian honey bee Apis cerana, has now colonised "our" honey bee, Apis mellifera, and is now found on Apis mellifera in all continents except Australia. Varroa destructor can transmit a variety of honey bee viruses.
The incidence and abundance of viral infections in the honey bee has increased substantially since this mite colonised the honey bee, but it cannot alone account for all colony collapse. A recent study showed that viruses can spread from bee to bee, without the need for the mite to be present, and indeed cirus epidemics occurred before Varroa mites were present on Apis mellifera.
A 2007 study carried out in the USA showed that Israeli acute paralysis virus was the pathogen most commonly associated with CCD, but a 2009 study from the USA that investigated 60 factors that might be associated with colony losses gave a much less clear picture. Just how important this this and other viruses are in causing CCD will need further research.
Are there any other suspects?
Another pathogen is a gut parasite, Nosema ceranae, which has recently been found in bee hives around the world. Like Varroa destructor, Nosema ceranae originated in the Asian bee, Apis cerana, and seems to be replacing the type of Nosema, N. apis, normally found in our species of honey bee, Apis mellifera. However, there is good evidence that Nosema ceranae colonised the USA honey bee before CCD took hold. Once again, more research is needed to determine how virulent Nosema ceranae really is. Researchers in Spain are convinced it is causing colony deaths in their country, but it seems not to be causing a problem in several other countries where it has been monitored.
So we're none the wiser then?
Actually we are. We now know that we are dealing with a complex puzzle, and that there is no single or novel cause, and that the situation is not the same in every country. The first annual report of the U.S. Colony Collapse Disorder Steering Committee in July 2009 supports this idea. Conventional causes of bee death, in complex and varied combinations, could be to blame
- for example, the interaction between known pests and pathogens (complex and widespread), poor weather conditions that impact on foraging, lack of forage and management factors such as use of pesticides and long-distance transport of hives to nectar sources or pollination locations.
Many scientists across the world are now investigating the possible causes of honey bee death. Comprehensive collaboration would help to fit the pieces of this complicated jigsaw together. There also needs to be closer collaboration between science and beekeeping. The formation of COLOSS, an EU-funded network which coordinates all national bee research activity across Europe, and now globally, aims to explain and prevent massive honey bee colony losses. So far it has 160 members drawn from 40 countries worldwide. COLOSS will seek to promote consistent research approaches and a transnational research programme that will be of benefit to science and beekeeping practice.
Good hive management remains a key weapon in the fight against colony collapse. Beekeeping is becoming increasingly technical (pollen substitutes are now given to bees, for example, in place of the real thing foraged from flowers), which may have unintended consequences for bee health. Further research is needed in this area, too, to ensure that colonies are kept healthy.
For example, at the University of Sussex we have started a project to breed hygienic bees that are more effective at removing diseased brood from the hive, thereby helping beekeepers to maintain hives free of debilitating pests and disease. Another project is examining where honey bees collect nectar and pollen so that we can better understand how bee-friendly the modern landscape is. These two projects will provide information and resources that can help beekeepers keep their colonies healthy, and help improve the food supply for bees and other pollinating insects. Food supply is vital: even if we could somehow control all honey bee diseases, the bees still have to find food (flowers).
So we could be on the verge of solving the riddle of this modern threat to our long relationship with the honey bee?
The problem facing honey bees can be thought of as a wake-up call to action and to take the need for pollination more seriously. There are reports from hundreds of years ago of large numbers of honey bee colonies dying, and it is unlikely that there will ever be an end to the need for research and action to safeguard thriving populations of honey bees and beekeeping in the UK and other countries.
Notes for Editors
For a more detailed appraisal of honey bee research into colony collapse,
The recent article by Professor Ratnieks and Norman Carreck published in Science - Clarity on Honey Bee Collapse?
http://www.ibra.org.uk/articles/specialissue2010The Journal of Apicultural Research Special Issue: International Studies on Honey Bee Colony Losses, edited by Dr Peter Neumann (Chair of the COLOSS network and Norman Carreck, who is also Scientific Director of the International Bee Research Association (IBRA).
For full details of the Sussex Plan and other research into social insects, see the LASI website: