What’s killing our honey bees?

Where did all the honey bees go? Lily Barclay investigates why thousands of bees are being wiped out in the UK

What is the problem with honey bees?

A third of the UK’s honey bees did not survive this winter and spring. In the US and other European countries this little-understood phenomenon has been dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). No one fully understands why this is happening.

What is Colony Collapse Disorder?

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is used to describe the phenomenon in which worker bees from a colony or hive abruptly disappear, and the colony dies. It may be due to stress, or viruses, or a combination of both, or other causes. But no one fully understands the condition, as hives and colonies can collapse for other reasons, especially during the winter.

CCD was first reported in North America in late 2006 where in some beekeepers saw losses of up to 95%. Today in the US overall honey bee losses of 36% have seen significant drops in the quantity of honey harvested. CCD has since spread and has been reported in Canada, Italy, Germany and France. However, despite beekeepers concerns it is yet to be officially confirmed in the UK by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Why does it matter?

Unsurprisingly, fewer honeybees means less honey. Many experts believe that English honey will have run out by Christmas 2008, and will not be available again until 2009. The consequences for the agricultural economy could be significant – bees are reported to make an annual £165 million for the industry.

But perhaps more crucially honeybees play a vital role within the planet’s ecosystem by pollinating many fruit and vegetables. We don’t fully understand the full consequences of their demise, but without bees many flowering plants would become extinct.

These include most agricultural harvests making bees a critical link in the food chain. Bees pollinate about 80% of flowering crops – this amounts to a third of the food we eat, from raspberries to runner beans.

Why is it happening?

There are always natural dips in bees’ annual survival rate, and the average drop in numbers over the winter period varies between 5% and 10%. This year the British Beekeepers Association (BBA) reported that more than 30% of honey bees didn’t survive the winter and spring.

There are many possible explanations for this, but the cause of the crisis is still a mystery. Some experts believe there is no single reason but a combination of factors.

The wet summer of 2007 restricted bees to their hives. This did not leave them enough opportunity to forage for nectar to see them through the winter months. Malnutrition weakens the bees’ immune systems and heightens stress in the hive. This in turn makes them vulnerable to mites and disease such as varroatosis and nosemosis, which has been compounded again by this year’s wet spring.

A host of manmade issues have also been cited as the possible causes. These include urban growth, GM crops, global warming and even mobile phone radiation. Many beekeepers believe that the misuse of pesticides disorientates bees’ and affects their ability to find their way back to the hive.

Possible solutions

The BBA want Defra to fund an £8m research programme over five years. The programme would investigate the growing depletion of bees in the UK. The government currently spends £200,000 on bee research. Critics argue that this is well out of sync with the reported £165m a year that bees contribute to the agricultural economy.

The UK’s largest honey company ‘Rowse’ is sufficiently concerned about the crisis to donate 10p from every jar of honey sold to honeybee research.

In August 2008 Chris Hartfield, horticultural adviser for the National Farmers’ Union told the Guardian, “Research is vital into varroa, bee breeding and the Nosema parasite – we are talking about food security and world food supplies being put at risk.”