The plight of the honey bee


Jo Telfer


Bees get a lot of publicity, much of it bad, such as swarms in populated areas or people suffering anaphylactic shock from bee stings but more recently the news about bees has been different.  It has been asking “What is happening to bees?”




Living with the honey bee


Albert Einstein is famously quoted as saying that if bees and other pollinators disappeared off the face of the earth, humanity would only last about 4 years.  While not entirely accurate, it is true that about ⅓ of the food we eat depends on bees, since fruit and vegetables are virtually all pollinated by them; cereals are wind-pollinated.


There are 250 types of bees in the UK, including about 25 species of bumble bees, 19 of which gather pollen while the other 6 live in other bees’ nests and use their pollen.  Wasps do not pollinate, they are carnivorous and thus valuable in reducing pests.  Solitary bees include the Red Mason and the Tawny Mining Bee, but they do not occur in great numbers and almost every one has another that predates on it.  A lot of exotic fruit and vegetables are grown in polytunnels, which are not open to the air and bumble bees are imported for the purposes of pollination.


The honey bee has up to 60,000 bees in a colony, with a single queen and 1 or 2,000 drones.  To raise one bee from a larva takes about 70mg of pollen so each colony uses 50-100lbs of pollen each year.  Worker bees generally live for about 6 weeks, with the first 3 spent in the hive, doing a variety of jobs including making wax comb, sealing eggs in nest cells, keeping the hives clean, evaporating excess moisture to make honey, feeding or cleaning the queen and guarding the entrance.  The bees then become foragers flying out to visit flowers for nectar and pollen for about 3 weeks, when their wings wear out and they die.  A single bee collects enough nectar in its lifetime to make less than a teaspoon of honey.  In winter the bees stay in the hive, clustering around the queen and any eggs to maintain an appropriate temperature, feeding on their own honey stores or on food provided by the beekeeper.

                     Egg                                           Larva                                              Pupa                                           Adult


Honey bees are the number one pollinator of fruit, vegetables and nuts and are vital for 90% of our crops.  The value of honey bees to the UK economy has been variously estimated at £200 million up to £420 million; in the USA it is 60x this figure.


Problems for bees


Colony collapse disorder was named in the USA after American beekeepers found that colonies had disappeared from the hives, they could not find the bees.  In the UK, 2/3 of the Honey Bee population were lost in 2006-07.  The causes include the Varroa mite and virus infections, brood diseases and pests, pesticides, insect stress during transportation, loss of habitat, bad weather and bad beekeeping.


Varroa destructa is a pin-head sized mite with 8 legs, which travels on adult bees and breeds on larvae, laying eggs just as the larva is about to pupate.  The first egg to hatch is male and the next 3 or 4 are female and the mite has spread at an alarming rate.  It came from the Far East on the bee Apis cerana and was first noted in Europe in 1970, in the USA in 1980, in the UK in 1991 and in Harrow in 1992.  It cannot be eradicated and it transmits viruses which result in deformities so that bees cannot fly.


Varroa mite on larva                          Varroa mite on adult bee                                   Deformed wings


American foul brood is a spore-forming bacterium that is fed to the larvae.  It is resistant to hot and cold and to disinfectant and the spores stay alive for years.  It occurs worldwide.  In the south-east region this year, there were 2 cases of American foul brood.  The only solution is to burn the whole hive.  European foul brood is a non-spore-forming bacterium and of 4,000 colonies examined, 76 were infected.


Exotic pests generally come into the country with imported fruit and vegetables.  We import £10 million worth of fruit every day.  Asian hornets are spreading throughout Europe but have not yet reached the UK.  The small hive beetle, about ¼ inch long, is from Africa and is now all over the east coast of North America, though not yet in the UK.  It feeds on wax, honey and the larvae themselves.  Wax moth larvae could also cause problems.  For the whole of the UK there are only 9 bee inspectors. 


Pesticides are a further problem.  Systemic insecticides are used as seed dressing and sprays.  They permeate the plant while growing.  Neonicotinoids and midactooprid are neurotoxins that are 5,000x more toxic than DDT.  Bees are exposed through pollen and nectar and the insecticides accumulate in beeswax.  Neonicotinoids are used on ⅓of all arable crops in the UK.  An urgent review on data and the effects on bees is being carried out by the Chemicals Regulation Directorate of Defra.  Keele University is working on pesticide residues in wax, honey and bees.  They appear to affect the learning ability of bees, resulting in foragers not being able to find their way back to the hive.  Neonicotinoids are banned in Europe but not in the UK and all beekeepers are waiting for a ban to be imposed.


In the USA, beekeeping is big business and bees are imported from Australia or moved from northern states to Florida, California for pollination.  They are also transported for the cotton harvest and to the east coast for blueberries, cranberries and soft fruits.  Transport in trucks stresses the bees.


Loss of habitat is worsening.  100 years ago there were more insect pollinators but hedge removal to create large fields has removed the habitat.  Only 2% of meadow survives from 1930 and the loss of wild flowers is made worse by monoculture in agriculture, concreting of gardens and manicured grasses in parks.  Bees need a variety of pollen.


Global weather can have a serious impact.  This year has been the worst year for beekeepers and bees have needed feeding with sugar.


What is being done?


In 2008, the British Beekeeping Association took a petition to Downing Street.  £10 million has been granted for research into pollinators – bees, butterflies and other insects – in 9 different projects to establish if their decline in the UK can be halted.  Research includes the hygienic behaviour of bees and there are plans to establish a breeding programme of queen bees to try and improve British bees and select the right bees for breeding.  They are trying to find more hygienic bees, who will remove their dead from the hive.


Government action is needed to keep pests and diseases at a low level, to promote good standards of husbandry and to encourage effective biosecurity to minimise risks.  We need good clean apiaries.

In the UK, the National bee unit is housed in York and has 9 inspectors as well as researching bee health.  Good husbandry includes washing equipment and tools, blow-torching empty hives, replacing frame, inspecting regularly for pest problems and treating hives if and when necessary.




There is no one reason for the plight of honey bees.  Causes include the Varroa mite, viruses, disease and pests, poor mating, drone infertility, loss of habitat and of forage, the quality of pollen and pollution on plants from pesticides.


How can we help?


All can help by having a bee-friendly garden, not using pesticides, buying bee-friendly food, such as organic, Installing solitary bee nesting boxes, becoming a beekeeper and buying seasonal food.  Adopting a beehive with the British Beekeeping Association helps fund research.  We can als buy bee products, such as honey, beeswax polish and candles.