Honey bee situation is not so sweet

Bradford Telegraph and Argus, June 10, 2009

It's almost a century since Rupert Brook ended a poem by asking whether there would still be honey for tea. Unfortunately that question is now very relevant.

The UK bee population fell by a third a couple of winters ago, and this means honey is now more expensive, particularly as we eat about 25,000 tonnes each year and produce just 4,000 tonnes. With each teaspoon of honey requiring the work of a dozen bees, we can do with every one of them, and this probably explains the current rash of hive rustling.

However, our domesticated European honey bee has a more vital role than just producing honey. Bees collect pollen as well as nectar, and it's a good job, too, as around one third of the human food supply depends on insect pollination, mainly by bees.

Bees are essential if we want annual crops of apples, pears, plums, grapes and so on. The list includes soft fruits, like strawberries, and vegetables such as onions and broccoli, as well as essential oilseeds such as rape and linseed.

Wild bees have almost disappeared in North America and the problem is now called colony collapse disorder. US bee-keeping has been mainly for pollination rather than honey and over five billion dollars is earned annually by transporting hives to pollinate crops all over the country, from Florida to California.

There isn't one simple reason that explains this sudden decline in bee populations, but it's likely to be a combination of mites and viruses, pesticides, modern farming practices and stress brought on by the transfer of hives over long distances.

There is no compelling evidence that the bees are disoriented by the electromagnetic radiation from mobile phones and the case against genetically-modified crops, with their inbuilt insecticides, is not yet proven, though that could be a possibility.

Another stress for the bees is that they become active too early in the spring season with the warmer winters associated with climate change, so they are up and about before the plants are ready to flower. The resulting malnutrition in the colonies makes them prey to the other factors and they find it too difficult to work together.

It may well be that an aspect of human behaviour unwittingly interferes with the natural order and so puts at risk the vital pollination that is so important for our food supply. We need to be more mindful of the unintended consequences of our actions than we've been in the past.