In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

`Little Roar’ of Britain’s Bees Goes Silent as Colonies Die Off

Posted by smeddum on August 4, 2008

The real mystery is why these reports (here and here)are being ignored by most Beekeepers and mainstream Journalists, and Government agencies

By Alex Morales

Aug. 4 (Bloomberg) — John Chapple stands among a hum of honeybees flying in and out of 10 hives in the gardens of Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s London residence by the River Thames. The insects are buzzing. For now.

Eighteen months ago about two-thirds of the 40 hives that Chapple keeps across the capital died off, including all 12 in his own back yard. London’s beekeepers collectively lost half of their colonies in the past two years. During last winter alone, almost a third of hives across the U.K. lost their bees.

“If you give hives a thump, you get a little roar coming back, and I didn’t get any roars,” Chapple, chairman of the London Beekeepers Association, said of the vanishing insects. “Some had bees but the mysterious ones had virtually nothing. Everything had disappeared.”

Beekeepers say Britain may harbor Colony Collapse Disorder, an unexplained phenomenon that’s led to the loss of more than 35 percent of U.S. hives this year. The government estimates bee pollination is worth as much as 200 million pounds ($395 million) to agriculture and in April began a public inquiry on improving the health of honeybees, which wraps up this month.

Aside from the loss to crop pollination, a dearth of bees would also jeopardize the U.K.’s honey production, valued at as much as 30 million pounds a year by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

`Toxic Mix’

In the U.S., where the Department of Agriculture estimates bee pollination adds $15 billion to crop values, government researchers are studying whether pesticides, parasites, diseases, or a combination of stresses are responsible for the losses. U.K. bees typically die off because of viruses, unusually damp weather and the varroa mite, a pest found locally since the early 1990s.

“We have all the components here of the American-style disorder in terms of disease,” said Tim Lovett, president of the British Beekeepers’ Association, listing a “toxic mix” of varroa, viruses, and a parasite called nosema. “Probably these sorts of losses haven’t been seen since the early 1900s. There is clearly something taking place over and above the normal vicissitudes of beekeeping.”

Lovett said the onus is on the government to act because it benefits from taxes it wouldn’t receive from agriculture without pollination by honeybees.

The association estimates bee pollination is worth 86 million pounds to apple growing, 25 million pounds to oilseed rape cultivation, and 20 million pounds to raspberry growers, among other crops.

`Drop in Ocean’

“Because bees pollinate a third of everything that we eat – – most fruits and nuts, vegetables and seeds, the plants we use for cattle feed — we’d end up with a food shortage and very high prices” without the insects, said Alison Benjamin, co-author of “A World Without Bees” (Guardian Newspapers Ltd., 2008). “Most people just think honeybees equals honey.”

The government spends 1.3 million pounds a year on its National Bee Unit inspectorate and 200,000 pounds on research. The beekeepers’ association says an extra 7.7 million pounds is needed over five years to fund studies of varroa, other bee diseases and breeding techniques.

“In the sum of the whole of the agriculture business, it’s a drop in the ocean,” said Colliers CRE Plc Chairman Sir John Ritblat, who’s kept bees as a hobby for 30 years. “There’s insufficient allocation for research, and bees are so fundamental to our environment.”

Funding of the government’s bee health program is unlikely to change next year, though an additional 90,000 pounds is being spent this year for the National Bee Unit to study the winter losses, the environment, food and rural affairs department said in an e-mailed response to questions.

Queen Bees

“What is most important is that we have a clear understanding of disease threats and how to tackle them,” the e- mail said. “That is why we are developing a bee health strategy which will set out the objectives and priorities for the bee health program over the next 10 years.”

Because British beekeeping is largely amateur, the U.K. shortage could get worse than in the U.S., where “big commercial setups” dominate the scene and there’s more incentive to restock when hives die out, Lovett said. He is not optimistic the consultation will help.

“The bee health strategy is proving to be a delaying tactic,” Lovett said, referring to the government’s consultation document. “It’s a fig-leaf for not spending the money that’s really needed.”

This year, U.K. beekeepers have restocked since the winter. At Park Beekeeping Supplies, sales of queen bees and one-kilogram (2.2-pound) packages of bees are more than double two years ago, said Rupert Munro, whose father, Godfrey, set up the London-based store over two decades ago.

“This year’s probably the biggest business year that we’ve ever had,” said Munro. “That’s in terms of demand for bees and the amount of people who want to re-queen their colonies.”

Threats remain, said Chapple, a beekeeper for 25 years.

“The bees are not behaving as they normally do. Something has upset them,” Chapple said. “Lots of people have lost queens, they haven’t mated properly, or they’ve gone off laying – – all weird things that are difficult to explain.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Morales in London at

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