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British Honey Bee Population On The Decline

November 26, 2008

In Britain, the honey bee population is on the decline, which has led to the prediction that the country will run out of English honey by Christmas.

But what’s more important is the effect this decline will have on farmers in the region.

“We are extremely aware of the enormous threat there is to honey bees and the huge reduction in population,” said Adrian Barlow, chief executive of trade group English Apples and Pears. “It is something we are very concerned about.”

Honey bees have the responsibility of pollinating some 90 percent of apples in Britain. They are also important to other crops such as pears, raspberries and runner beans.

Britain has about 250,000 hives, about 80 percent of them looked after by small-scale beekeepers who sell most of their honey to friends, colleagues and at farm shops.

The other 20 percent are kept by larger bee farmers who produce honey on a more commercial scale.

Experts say the combination of a wet summer and increasingly intensive agriculture have limited bees’ opportunities to forage for nectar.

“What was happening … with a lot of the colonies that failed was that the queens were running out of sperm and not being able to lay fertile eggs,” said Richard Steel, who has kept bees for 27 years, and recently lost two-thirds of his population over the summer.

“I put this down to the fact that they possibly mated with fewer drones (due to the wet weather),” he said.

Other countries are not immune to this problem. Honey bee populations are declining in countries such as the United States, France, Greece.

Beekeepers in Britain are asking for financial assistance from the annual state budget to increase research into the issue. They are petitioning the prime minister to ask for an increase in spending from 200,000 pounds to 1.6 million pounds ($2.37 million).

“The increased funding we are asking for is a drop in the ocean compared to the billions of pounds the government has found for bank bail-outs,” BBKA President Tim Lovett said, referring to moves prompted by the global financial crisis.

Long-term changes in agriculture have not helped the honey bee. A jump in wheat prices last year led to a 13 percent rise in plantings in Britain. Wheat does not provide any nectar.

Sowings of oilseed rape — a bees’ favorite which does flower — fell by 12 percent for this year’s harvest, according to figures issued by Britain’s farm ministry.

“Oilseed rape is a magnet for honey bees,” said Stuart Bailey, chairman of leading British brand Rowse Honey which has committed 100,000 pounds ($157,000) to support research into bee health at the University of Sussex.

What’s more, a noticeably wet spring/summer slows honey bee production down, as they are unable to store up enough food to survive the long winter.

“We’ve had a couple of years of very wet, cold windy summers that have caused a significant shortfall in terms of the food that the honey bee can stack up for the wintering period and it has caused heavier than normal losses,” said Stephen Hunter, deputy director of plant and bee health at the British government’s National Bee Unit.

Hive losses during last winter reached 30 percent, compared with about 10 percent during a normal year, estimated BBKA Chairman Martin Smith.

Bees in Britain also face opposition from a parasitic mite known as Varroa destructor, which has spread from Asia to England and now infests 95 percent of hives. The mites are resistant to treatments to eradicate them.

“There is a hope that we can breed honey bees to be more resistant to the mite and other diseases — if not fully resistant — by making them less suitable hosts,” said Ratinieks.

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