And is there honey still for tea?

PUBLISHED: 16:31 24 June 2008 | UPDATED: 15:17 20 February 2013

Honey in the making, but we mustn't take it for granted

Honey in the making, but we mustn't take it for granted

Rupert Brooke's classic poem has suddenly taken on more worrying connotations. Jim Keoghan reports on the plight of the honey bee...

The familiar buzzing of bees is a sound that for many is synonymous with the English summer. Their presence is something that we take for granted, seeing them as an indelible part of our natural environment. Rupert Brooke's classic poem, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, that asks the question, "And is there honey still for tea?" has suddenly taken on more worrying undertones.

"I think it's wrong to assume that just because bees have always been around that they will be there forever. Some species have already become extinct and now the honey bee, possibly one of the most important species of bee, is under serious threat," says Jon Davey of the Reading Beekeepers Association.

He goes on: "The situation regarding the honey bee has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. It's the case that honey bees are no longer sustainable as a species in the wild. Ask yourself when you last saw a feral colony of honey bees? Just a generation ago they would have been commonplace, when feral colonies accounted for over half of all honey bees. Today, it's much rarer to see one, and those that are evident often only survive for between two to three years."

The continued survival of the European honey bee is now the responsibility of beekeepers across the country, although even amongst these, the number of active hives has declined over the last twenty years.

Stephen Fleming of the Newbury and District Beekeeping Association believes the principle cause of this decline has been the varroa mite. "This parasite originated in the Far East, where it was originally confined to the Asian honey bee, Apis cerana, whose colonies are able to tolerate it. Over recent decades it spread slowly across the world and came into contact with the European honey bee, Apis mellifera, which is much more susceptible to it," he says.

According to Stephen, once the mite comes into contact with a colony of European honey bees, without intervention by beekeepers, it can quickly decimate the population.

He warns: "The mites feed on adult bees and brood, weakening them. It also spreads pathogens such as bee viruses, which can kill bees and cause those in a larval stage to be born deformed. These twin effects ensure that a colony which has a large population of varroa mite cannot function for very long. The mite was first indentified in the UK in 1992, when it began to cause the destruction
of colonies in Devon. Since then it has spread around the country and has been a constant threat to beekeepers."

So devastating were its effects when the mite first arrived in the UK that during the 1990s many beekeepers were put out of business and membership of the British Beekeeping Association (BBKA) halved from 16,000 in 1990 to 8,000 a decade later. Chemical treatments have since been established to manage the problem, which has led to a revival in the number of hives and beekeepers, although as yet the mite cannot be completely eradicated by human intervention.

Although the impact of varroa has been limited, the future for the European honey bee remains insecure. The recent development of strains of varroa resistant to treatments used against them poses new challenges to beekeepers. Added to this, many beekeepers here are concerned about a phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which started several years ago in the USA and has since spread to Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece.

CCD occurs when a colony's inhabitants suddenly disappear, leaving only queens, eggs and a few immature workers. The vanished bees are never found, but are thought to die singly far from home. The parasites, wildlife and other bees that normally raid the honey and pollen left behind when a colony dies, refuse to go anywhere near the abandoned hives for a few weeks afterwards.

To date, the reason for it remains unknown, although scientists researching the problem have so far put forward a number of possible causes, including excessive use of harmful pesticides, increased solar radiation through ozone thinning and the use of unauthorised bee treatments. Evoking memories of the devastation wrought by the varroa mite during the 1990s, the development of CCD is being watched by British beekeepers with a growing sense of unease.

The possible extinction of our honey bees is something that we all need to be concerned about. According to Vinnie McCann, of Waltham Place Farm, near Maidenhead, the decline in honey bees is risking the sustainability of home-grown food.

"Any possible future without honey bees is just unthinkable. They are responsible for about 85 per cent of all pollination in Britain's insect-pollinated crop plants, including fruit and vegetable favourites such as strawberries, apples and cucumbers, and are the only producers of honey. They are absolutely essential to the countryside," he warns.

Via their role in both the production of honey and pollination, honey bees also contribute massively to the UK economy. According to DEFRA, they are estimated to contribute more than £1 billion a year to National Income through their role in pollination and are responsible for a honey market that is now worth around £65million each year.

Despite their importance and the numerous threats that now face them, Will Steynor, President of the High Wycombe Beekeepers Association, feels that DEFRA isn't doing enough to tackle the problem.

"There are real problems facing the honey bee population at the moment, and possible threats in the future," he says. "Despite this the Government has dramatically cut spending on bee research, and now it is something around £200,000 per year, which is just a paltry sum. There seems to be no appreciation of just how important honey bees are to this country".

The future might look uncertain but that shouldn't stop people from getting involved. "If you're concerned then the best way to tackle this problem is to become a beekeeper. It's not always easy and there are no guarantees that all your bees or hives will survive but it's an interesting and varied hobby" says Michael Sheasby of the Slough Beekeepers Association.

He advises that before you do anything, you should get in contact with your local beekeeping association.

"There are several across the county and they will be able to give you all the advice you need about setting up on your own. They can tell you about dealing with varroa, the impact of different weather patterns, what to do over the winter, how to harvest honey and what to do about swarms," he says.

Michael also adds that it is important that you locate your hives in the right environment. "Bees follow flight paths, so if you live in a built up area and have neighbours close to where you want your hives, then it's best to discuss it with them beforehand, otherwise it can cause problems later on. If you don't want the bees in your own garden or aren't able to keep them there, then housing them on an allotment is another idea, as is approaching a farmer and asking if you can keep them on their land."

Honey Bees are amazing little creatures and their survival is something that we all need to be concerned about. After all, what else could pollinate our crops, sustain our gardens and provide us with honey each summer?

Five things you didn't know about bees

• Honey is a mild antiseptic which helps the healing process
• The bee is the only insect that produces food eaten by man
• Romans used honey instead of gold to pay their taxes
• Cleopatra bathed in milk and honey to maintain her youthful appearance
• Bees' wings beat 11,400 times per minute

Bee-wise in your garden

Help attract bees to your garden and sustain their number with bee-friendly planting. Here are a few suggestions:

Shrubs: Berberis, Buckthorn, Buddleia, Cotoneaster, Erica, Genista, Ribes, Snowy Mespilus, Snowberry, Veronica.

Perennials and Biennials: Anchusa, Arabis, Aubrieta, Campanulas, Canterbury Bells, Cranes-Bill, Centaurea, Forget Me Nots, French Honeysuckles, Globe Thistle, Hollyhock, Linaria, Mallow, Michaelmas Daisy, Nepeta, Rose-Bay, Salvias, Sidalcea, Sedums, Veronica, Verbascum, Violet, Wallflower. Summer Bedding Plants: Dahlias, Fuchasia, Heliotrope.

Bulbs: Crocus, Hyacinth, Narcissus, Snowdrops.

Annuals: Borage, Cornflower, Clarkia, Limnanthes, Mignonette, Phacelia, Scabious.

Local honey

Parslow Apiaries not only make their own honey, but honey products such as candles, furniture polish, beeswax blocks, handcream and lip balm. Their hives are scattered around local farms and the pollen comes from local flowers and crops. Many local hay fever sufferers eat the honey throughout the year to build up their allergic resistance. You can buy the honey at farmers' markets in Aylesbury, Beaconsfiled, High Wycombe and Thame and in several local shops.

Want to find out more?

The Honey Association

Federation of Berkshire Beekeepers

British Beekeepers Association

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