The plight of the honey bee
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
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
Problems for bees
disorder was named in the
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.