Bees are a fundamental part of our countryside. Honey bees don’t just brighten up the countryside scene as they flit from flower to flower collecting the nectar they need to make their honey. Honey bees together with bumble bees, mason bees and many other related species fertilise over three quarters of our wild and agricultural flowering plants.
That is why our honey farmers move their hives around the country following the various flowering seasons. To fruit orchards at blossom time, to heather uplands in search of exotic honey flavours, but mostly on field fringes to help farmers plants achieve heavy harvests.
So we need to take very seriously the fact that Britain’s honey bee population has been cut in half over the last 25 years. If that scale of decline continues it spells disaster for our countryside and our agricultural and horticultural industries. It also means no more delicious British honey.
The huge yellow fields of rape need bees, soft fruit bushes and our many orchards also need these buzzing sex machines to carry out the complicated process of moving pollen from anthers to stamens deep inside flowers thus starting the production of seeds or fruit. Without bees, quite simply much of tour countryside would die.
So why are honey bees in such decline not just in Britain but all around the world? Up until now, colony collapse disorder (CCD) as the world wide phenomena has become known, has left bee-keepers and researchers scratching their heads.
CCD is little-understood. Worker bees disappear abruptly from the hive and without the workers the colony collapses. CCD was originally found in North America in late 2006.
It was soon also identified in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, Switzerland and Germany. By 2007 it had reached our British hives.
So what causes it? Many believe that our increasing use of chemical pesticides and herbicides are largely to blame. Recent and strong suspects are neonicotinoid insecticides now used by a profit hungry agribusiness for coating all sorts of seeds. These chemicals are among the most widely used in the world. In use the seeds are coated with neonicotinoids prior to planting. As the plant grows the chemical moves all through the plant including the pollen and flowers where it affects the foraging bees.
Another leading suspect is genetically modified crops, which may generate pollen with nutritional value of less use to bees. That makes it somewhat ironic that the experimental station at Rothhamstead in Hertfordshire is developing a GM wheat with peppermint genes that should discourage insect attack as a replacement for neonicotinoids.
Some experts claim that organic bee colonies where chemicals and GM crops are avoided are not experiencing the same kind of catastrophic collapses.
Some bee-keepers blame mobile phones and wireless communication towers. They believe the radiation may interfere with bees’ ability to navigate. A small study in Germany found that bees would not return to their hives when mobile phones were operated nearby.
Some offer simpler, if more traditional explanations, more virulent hive fungi, super-mites even the invasion of swarms of rival foreign killer bees.
Biologists also question if climate change may be promoting the growth mites, viruses and fungi that take their toll on bee colonies. The unusual weather fluctuations in recent years may also be disturbing bee populations accustomed to more consistent weather patterns.
Whatever the reason we need to understand the honey bee and ensure that the actions we take to ensure its survival are driven by the needs of the worker bees and not the millionaire owners of huge multinational agribusiness companies – now where have we heard something like that before?
This article first published in the Morning Star, 2012