LONDON (Reuters) - Where in the United States, fruit farmers pay to have bees trucked thousands of miles to pollinate their crops and in parts of China, humans with feather dusters have taken on the task, in Britain most bees go nature’s way.
Britons have a deep nostalgia for home-grown honey and its associations with an ordered rural lifestyle. But here, too, the honey bee population is dwindling, and with winter under way faces a tough fight for survival.
Besides warnings the country will run out of English honey by Christmas, there is a threat to growers of fruits such as apples and pears.
A wet summer on top of changed sowings and increasingly intensive agriculture have limited opportunities to forage for nectar, risking starvation for bees. Most colonies are also infested with a dangerous parasitic mite.
“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.”
To collect a pound of honey, a bee might have to fly a distance equivalent to twice around the world. This is likely to involve 10,000 flower visits or perhaps 500 foraging trips, according to the British Beekeepers’ Association (BBKA).
Honey bees pollinate about 90 percent of apples in Britain and also have an important role for many other crops including runner beans, pears and raspberries.
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.
Richard Steel in the Cambridgeshire countryside has been keeping bees for 27 years. He had about three dozen colonies but lost about two thirds of them, blaming heavy rains during the spring/summer mating season as a key factor.
“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,” he told Reuters by telephone.
“I put this down to the fact that they possibly mated with fewer drones (due to the wet weather).”
The United States, France, Greece and many other countries have also suffered heavy losses in the bee population and researchers are still searching for answers.
British beekeepers have been demanding the annual state budget for bee health research be raised to 1.6 million pounds ($2.37 million) from 200,000 pounds now. Hundreds of them delivered a petition to the prime minister in London earlier this month calling for more research spending.
“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.
The term Colony Collapse Disorder was first used in North America in 2006, initially applied to a sharp rise in colony losses in that region. But European beekeepers have also seen similar phenomena.
“Collapse is a jargonistic term,” said Francis Ratnieks, professor of apiculture at the University of Sussex in southern England. “The hive doesn’t actually collapse. The bees just go away. It is basically hives dying in the winter.”
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.
Sussex University’s Ratnieks also pointed out that agriculture has become more intensive: “In the old days a field of wheat would have more weeds in it, but farmers are not in the business of growing weeds.”
Wet summers have also made it hard for bees to store up enough food to survive the long winter from end-October to mid-March when flowers are scarce.
“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. He said beekeepers were restricting the amount of honey they were taking from hives and many were providing additional food.
On top of this, one of the main threats to British honey bees is a parasitic mite called Varroa destructor. Originally confined to Asian honey bees, it has spread across Europe and reached England in 1992. It now infests 95 percent of hives.
Strains of the mite have now developed which are resistant to treatments used against them. Varroa mites feed on both adult bees and brood, as well as spreading harmful bee viruses.
In Ratnieks’ view, Britain’s bee declines can be largely attributed to the mites.
“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,” he said.
Rowse Honey, which as market-leader for the home-produced market is sponsoring efforts to address the problem, has an alarming prognosis: “We are definitely going to be out of English honey by Christmas. It has been a terrible year,” said its chairman Bailey.
The threat to home-grown honey only represents a small opportunity for other producers. The British eat about 30,000 tonnes of honey a year of which about 3,000 tonnes is home produced. The biggest source of imports is Argentina and other important suppliers include Mexico, Hungary and India.
“In this country honey is a niche product,” said the National Bee Unit’s Hunter. “It is mainly pollination we are worried about.”
“In China they are actually trying to dust fruit trees with long feather dusters to try and pollinate them,” Bailey of Rowse Honey said. “How ludicrous is that?” We have just got to look after the honey bee.”
Editing by Sara Ledwith