Plan bee

The very real dangers posed to our honey bees

"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.

Paul Rodgers is a freelance science, medicine and technology journalist. He was born in Derby, the son of a science teacher, and emigrated with his family to the Canadian prairies when he was nine. He began writing for a student newspaper in Winnipeg in 1982 and had staff positions on several Canadian dailies. Despite his return to these shores 15 years ago, he still talks with a funny accent.
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How Donald Trump is slouching towards the Republican nomination

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb.

In America, you can judge a crowd by its merchandise. Outside the Connecticut Convention Centre in Hartford, frail old men and brawny moms are selling “your Trump 45 football jerseys”, “your hats”, “your campaign buttons”. But the hottest item is a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Hillary sucks . . . but not like Monica!” and, on the back: “Trump that bitch!” Inside, beyond the checkpoint manned by the Transportation Security Administration and the secret service (“Good!” the man next to me says, when he sees the agents), is a family whose three kids, two of them girls, are wearing the Monica shirt.

Other people are content with the shirts they arrived in (“Waterboarding – baptising terrorists with freedom” and “If you don’t BLEED red, white and blue, take your bitch ass home!”). There are 80 chairs penned off for the elderly but everyone else is standing: guys in motorcycle and military gear, their arms folded; aspiring deal-makers, suited, on cellphones; giggling high-school fatsos, dressed fresh from the couch, grabbing M&M’s and Doritos from the movie-theatre-style concession stands. So many baseball hats; deep, bellicose chants of “Build the wall!” and “USA!”. (And, to the same rhythm, “Don-ald J!”)

A grizzled man in camouflage pants and combat boots, whose T-shirt – “Connecticut Militia III%” – confirms him as a member of the “patriot” movement, is talking to a zealous young girl in a short skirt, who came in dancing to “Uptown Girl”.

“Yeah, we were there for Operation American Spring,” he says. “Louis Farrakhan’s rally of hate . . .”

“And you’re a veteran?” she asks. “Thank you so much!”

Three hours will pass. A retired US marine will take the rostrum to growl, “God bless America – hoo-rah!”; “Uptown Girl” will play many more times (much like his speeches, Donald J’s playlist consists of a few items, repeated endlessly), before Trump finally looms in and asks the crowd: “Is this the greatest place on Earth?”

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb. Only a minority within a minority of Americans, it was assumed, could possibly be stupid enough to think a Trump presidency was a good idea. He won New Hampshire and South Carolina with over 30 per cent of the Republican vote, then took almost 46 per cent in Nevada. When he cleaned up on Super Tuesday in March, he was just shy of 50 per cent in Massachusetts; a week later, he took 47 per cent of the votes in Mississippi.

His rivals, who are useless individually, were meant to co-operate with each other and the national party to deny him the nomination. But Trump won four out of the five key states being contested on “Super-Duper Tuesday” on 15 March. Then, as talk turned to persuading and co-opting his delegates behind the scenes, Trump won New York with 60 per cent.

Now, the campaign is trying to present Trump as more “presidential”. According to his new manager, Paul Manafort, this requires him to appear in “more formal settings” – without, of course, diluting “the unique magic of Trump”. But whether or not he can resist denouncing the GOP and the “corrupt” primary system, and alluding to violence if he is baulked at at the convention, the new Trump will be much the same as the old.

Back in Hartford: “The Republicans wanna play cute with us, right? If I don’t make it, you’re gonna have millions of people that don’t vote for a Republican. They’re not gonna vote at all,” says Trump. “Hopefully that’s all, OK? Hopefully that’s all, but they’re very, very angry.”

This anger, which can supposedly be turned on anyone who gets in the way, has mainly been vented, so far, on the protesters who disrupt Trump’s rallies. “We’re not gonna be the dummies that lose all of our jobs now. We’re gonna be the smart ones. Oh, do you have one over there? There’s one of the dummies . . .”

There is a frenzied fluttering of Trump placards, off to his right. “Get ’em out! . . . Don’t hurt ’em – see how nice I am? . . . They really impede freedom of speech and it’s a disgrace. But the good news is, folks, it won’t be long. We’re just not taking it and it won’t be long.”

It is their removal by police, at Trump’s ostentatious behest, that causes the disruption, rather than the scarcely audible protesters. He seems to realise this, suddenly: “We should just let ’em . . . I’ll talk right over them, there’s no problem!” But it’s impossible to leave the protesters where they are, because it would not be safe. His crowd is too vicious.

Exit Trump, after exactly half an hour, inclusive of the many interruptions. His people seem uplifted but, out on the street, they are ambushed by a large counter-demonstration, with a booming drum and warlike banners and standards (“Black Lives Matter”; an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, holding aloft Trump’s severed head). Here is the rest of the world, the real American world: young people, beautiful people, more female than male, every shade of skin colour. “F*** Donald Trump!” they chant.

After a horrified split-second, the Trump crowd, massively more numerous, rallies with “USA!” and – perplexingly, since one of the main themes of the speech it has just heard was the lack of jobs in Connecticut – “Get a job!” The two sides then mingle, unobstructed by police. Slanging matches break out that seem in every instance to humiliate the Trump supporter. “Go to college!” one demands. “Man, I am in college, I’m doin’ lovely!”

There is no violence, only this: some black boys are dancing, with liquid moves, to the sound of the drum. Four young Trump guys counter by stripping to their waists and jouncing around madly, their skin greenish-yellow under the street lights, screaming about the building of the wall. There was no alcohol inside; they’re drunk on whatever it is – the elixir of fascism, the unique magic of Trump. It’s a hyper but not at all happy drunk.

As with every other moment of the Trump campaign so far, it would have been merely some grade of the cringeworthy – the embarrassing, the revolting, the pitiful – were Trump not slouching closer and closer, with each of these moments, to his nomination. 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism