Honey, our bees are vanishing!
Felix Lowe

Sunday April 30, 2006
Beloved by Britons, the humble honey bee is hailed as a reassuring symbol of summer. But disease has almost wiped out the wild population and threatens domestic swarms. Science Editor Robin McKie reveals why we should all be worried about the decline of this remarkable creature

When a fire hazard light flashed in the cockpit of a British Airways jumbo jet that was heading from Sydney to London two weeks ago, its pilot, Dave Meggs, knew he had only one course of action. He diverted his craft, and its complement of 350 passengers, to the nearest airport, a tiny landing strip at Uralsk in Kazakhstan.His emergency touchdown was a flawless copybook affair. It was also, as it turned out, completely unnecessary. There was no fire in the hold of the plane despite sensors indicating this was the source of the raging flames. All that could be found was a package of disgruntled bees, en route from Australia to Britain, which investigators now believe was the most probable cause of the alarm and the ensuing aviation emergency.

In the end it took 20 hours to ferry passengers back to London in a flotilla of smaller craft (the airstrip was too short for the jumbo to take off with its passengers on board) and all thanks to a bunch of errant insects.

It is still unclear how bees managed to trigger the alarm in the hold, although this is certainly not the only question hanging over the incident. In particular, there is the issue of what these creatures were doing on Flight BA010 in the first place.

Bees - which have been loved by Britons ranging from William Shakespeare to Jill Archer - are the quintessence of Britishness. Yet it transpires we are importing them regularly. What is happening? The answer, say beekeepers, is a simple one: a malaise has been spreading through the nation's apiary industry with alarming implications. Thanks to foreign diseases and the spread of drug resistance among infectious agents, the buzzing bee, as sure a signal of summer's onset as traffic jams on the M5, is now at risk of being stifled.

'The situation is very serious and very worrying,' said Dr Ivor Davis, of the British Beekeeping Association. 'We are suffering serious declines in our bee population and that has damaging consequences. People are doing anything to try to put things right and restore populations, and that includes importing bees from Europe and Australia but it is not clear this will help us in the long term.'

Britain's apiary crisis can be traced back to the Nineties when hives were first struck by varroa destructor - a parasitic mite that feeds off the bodily fluids of bees. Populations plummeted, particularly among the nation's wild swarms which have virtually been eradicated. Only colonies tended by people survive in this country today. New feral colonies are sometimes established but without a keeper to help will only survive for a short time before succumbing to disease.

'The honey bees that buzz around your garden and which help to pollinate your plants now all come from colonies that are cared for by humans,' said Davis. 'Effectively, we have no wild bees left in Britain at all now, only ones that are tended for and protected by keepers.' That is bad enough. However, new strains of varroa, resistant to the chemicals that had been used to treat the condition, have started to infect hives in the past year. Their appearance has triggered renewed alarm, with beekeepers reporting major dips in honey production.

Yet honey is only a small part of the problem. Bees - 'the little almsmen of spring bowers', according to Keats - shape our countryside. They pollinate the bluebells that carpet our woods as well as our dandelions and willows and they ensure our apple and pear trees are rich in hanging fruit. Our landscape would be a drab affair were it not for the attentions of Apis mellifera.

'It is true that fruit trees can pollinate themselves without help from bees, but the fruit that they would produce would be stunted and unappetising,' added Davis. 'We take bees for granted, which is a mistake. They have been making life bearable in this country for centuries.'

This point was backed by John Howat, secretary of the British Bee Farmers' Association. 'If you look at what the bee does for Britain, the statistics are really striking. It has been calculated that, if they did not pollinate our commercial orchards and gardens, the country would lose about £120m to £150m in lost agricultural produce.'

And that figure reflects only what bees produce for farmers and commercial growers. If you look at their impact on the economy, including the profits they help make for supermarkets, it is estimated that bees are worth between £500m and £1bn to Britain. Not bad for a puny insect.

Not that this industriousness is rewarded or is even acknowledged, say keepers. They have been infuriated by recent government moves which have included attempts to cut back on projects that could aid the British honey bee.

Recently ministers axed the government's contribution to a public-private project that was aimed at developing biological agents that could fight varroa in hives and halt the current waves of infection. In addition, it threatened last year to reduce funds spent on the nation's bee inspection service, staffed by men and women who monitor disease prevalence in hives across the country and who are seen as playing a crucial role in maintaining the health of Apis mellifera. Only an outcry by beekeepers and farmers halted the cutback.

'The government spends just over £1m a year on a creature that is worth a thousand times that to our economy and an inestimable amount to our environment' said Howat. 'It is quite ridiculous.'

The government has also infuriated the beekeepers' association by relaxing rules that allow people to import bees from other countries, in particular the European Union and Australia. This has only increased the risk of new disease entering Britain, says the British Beekeeping Association. Parasites like the dreaded American Fowl Brood and the Small Hive Beetle infect other nations' bees, and their arrival in Britain is now viewed as being inevitable and their consequences highly damaging.

'The trouble is that there are a lot of keepers and farmers in Britain who have contracts with orchard owners to provide pollination of their trees but are now having great difficulty is getting enough bees, so they have started to import them,' added Alan Johnston, a former chairman of the Bee Keepers Association. 'That is probably what was going on in the flight that got stuck in Kazakhstan.'

However, the risk posed by these imports is downplayed by other beekeepers. Only single queen bees are actually brought into the country, which limits the prospects for the spread of infections.

'Packages contain a fair number of bees, a single queen and a lot of workers who provide her food,' said Martin Tovey of the Beekeeping Association.

'However, workers are killed when they get to Britain and only the queen is kept. It is introduced gradually to members of a new hive. Eventually she is accepted and some of them join her to set up a new colony.' (Queens usually cost around £20 each, although those with good pedigrees can fetch prices that reach up to £500.)

When in the new hive, the bees start to collect pollen which they then turn into honey. 'Essentially honey is just concentrated pollen with some added bee enzymes,' said Howat. 'They create honey as food for surviving winter. The good thing is that bees produce far too much honey, so we can take most of it and use it for ourselves.'

It is an industry that has endured for centuries. 'It is not coming to an end overnight,' added Davis. 'However, it is clearly now in a worrying state. If any other of these new diseases establish themselves in this country in the near future, we could find ourselves in a very worrying situation.'

The History of Honey

  • 7000 BC: Cave paintings in Spain show the earliest records of beekeeping.
  • 4000 BC, Egypt: Honey used as a sweetening and an embalming agent.
  • Roman Empire: Beekeeping becomes a major industry; honey used to pay taxes.
  • 11th century, Germany: Beer was sweetened with honey; peasants paid their lords feudal dues in honey and beeswax.
  • 16th century: Conquering Spaniards discovered that Mexican and Central American natives had already developed beekeeping.
  • 17th century, American colonies: European honey bees are introduced to New England by settlers in about 1638; natives call the bees "white man's flies". Settlers also use honey to make cement, preserve fruits and act as a substitute for furniture varnish.
  • 20th century: Until the Second World War, honey is used for its antibacterial qualities in dressing wounds.
  • 21st century: Nearly one million tonnes of honey are produced worldwide every year.