"If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then Man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more life.” This quote, often attributed to Albert Einstein though there is no record of him saying anything like it, has been doing the rounds in apian circles since the nineties. If the calculation is true, notwithstanding the dodgy attribution, then the world might end in 2022, since Lord Rooker, the minister for sustainable food and farming and animal health, is on record with his warning: "Bee health is at risk and, frankly, if nothing is done about it, the honey bee population could be wiped out in 10 years."
To environmentalists struggling to save Canadian harp seals and Sumatran orang-utans, this additional worry may seem a bit too much. After all, billions of bees live in British hives alone, compared with populations of endangered large animals measured in mere hundreds or thousands. And while everyone loves honey, bees, when seen close-up, well, they aren’t the most photogenic creatures. Besides, bees are domesticated. One might want to ensure they get better treatment, as with battery chickens, but if any group of animals is safe from early extinction it’s those with a high economic value, and bees are worth some £165m a year.
Yet Lord Rooker has a point. Bee populations are crashing around the world, in some places due to a mysterious syndrome called Colony Collapse Disorder, in others because of the spread of a virulent parasite against which there is little defence. So it was with enthusiasm that beekeepers awaited the government’s release earlier this month of a consultation document, the first step towards a ten-year bee protection plan. And it was with disappointment that they discovered it proposed no additional funds for apian research, beyond the annual £200,000 Britain spends now. They had been hoping, given the threat to their buzzing charges, for £8m.
Consider, first, the parasite. If bees are less than pretty, Varroa destructor is positively ugly. The mite has a brown oval body a millimetre across and keeps its legs and mouthparts tucked underneath. Adult varroa (which are invariably female) sneak into brood cells in the hive and wait for workers to cap them off with wax. Then they cut holes in the bee larvae and suck out the hemolymph – essentially their blood, though since it carries nutrients but not oxygen, it is not red. The mite then lays five or six eggs at 30 hour intervals, starting with a single male. The next generation mates before the bee emerges, at which time the male mite, and any immature females, die. The bee carries the surviving adult females out into the hive where they can spread to the uninfected.
While hives can survive with a low-level infestation, the mite population quickly soars if not suppressed. It can cause deformities in the bees and, more importantly, spreads viruses. But treatment is difficult. Since varroa was identified in Britain in 1992, it has spread to all parts of England and Wales, and since 2001, a strain resistant to the only effective class of pesticides, pyrethroids, has emerged, particularly in Cornwall. Hopes now rest on methods designed to encourage bees to groom each other, such as by sprinkling them with harmless powders, or by trapping the adult mites in combs which are then removed from the hive and frozen.
But these techniques are complicated and labour intensive. Of Britain’s 44,000 beekeepers, only 200 run commercial businesses. The rest are mostly amateurs, or they are keeping hives as an adjunct to bigger farming enterprises. As Martin Smith, the chairman of the British Beekeepers’ Association, put it: “In Britain we are hobby beekeepers and should they stop caring and looking after them, the honey bee will disappear.” The number of hives in the UK fell from 400,000 in 1960 to 275,000 now, and the British Beekeepers’ Association fears varroa could slash the total by 30 per cent a year.
And if that’s not enough, there’s the looming threat of CCD, said to be sweeping across America and reaching from Poland to Portugal in Europe. Its symptoms include the desertion of hives, usually over the winter.
Particularly high rates of desertion in 2006 led to the new label and theories ranging from electromagnet interference to GM crops. But it’s still not clear what the new threat is, or indeed, whether there is a new threat at all. Bee populations die off naturally for many reasons, sometimes in high numbers. And among the usual suspects being scruitinised is our ugly little mite, V. destructor.