UK Bee Failure Both Environmental and Political

  • Published on July 22nd, 2009


While you may never have heard of it, in Britain the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) carries a big stick. The Government of the day takes notice of its reports and individual ministers are called to account over failures in their departments if the PAC points them out. This month the PAC has applied its big stick to the British government’s initiatives in addressing the collapse of bee colonies and basically it said that the government’s failure was as catastrophic as the collapses it was meant to resolve.

Despite public awareness and media attention to the problem, less than half Britain’s beekeepers are registered for regular inspection. Furthermore, the research funding meant to help solve the problem is not having the expected effect because the way the funding stream was set up means it has to be shared with other research projects into other insects.

Bees matter in a recession

The situation is economically serious as well as environmentally – the PAC estimate that British agriculture could lose £200 million of crop production if bees continue their current rate of decline. Bees, and specifically honey bees, pollinate some of Britain’s major staple foods including the glaring yellow oilseed rape that fills most fields every summer, apples, pears, beans and raspberries.

The loss of bees in the past two decades has been in part due to varroa mite: a parasite that attaches itself to the drone bees that move from hive to hive. The varroa mite was transmitted to Europe via imports of the Asian honeybee – because the European honeybee does not groom as often as its Asian counterpart, the mite has the opportunity to expand numbers rapidly once it obtains a foothold. These mites then feed off the bees, weakening them and transmitting pathogens and viruses into the bees’ bodies. Untreated colonies die out fairly swiftly unless control measures are undertaken, which is why registering beekeepers is so important. But there are other factors too: loss of habitats such as wild flower meadows, roadside verges and orchards, climate change, multiple pesticides used on pollinated crops and Colony Collapse Disorder. Around 30% of bees disappeared in the 2007/2008 winter and this year’s figures could be as bad, meaning that the UK has only a third of the bees it had four years ago.

Bee schemes don’t please old beekeepers

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has set up a National Bee Unit to provide advice to beekeepers, and created a Healthy Bees Scheme which has resulted in the registration of 1,500 beekeepers with BeeBase, the National Bee Unit’s beekeeper database. Most of these beekeepers are new converts though, rather than those already keeping bees.

There is no answer in sight to Colony Collapse Disorder which is the one cause that might bring those old school beekeepers into a registration scheme. As things currently stand, they fear government intervention and ‘meddling’, being told to move or destroy hives if they are seen as potentially infected or too old to meet current standards, and they can’t see why they should sign up for a scheme that has no discernable benefit to the beekeeper.

Rural beehive courtesy of strife at Flickr under a creative commons licence

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