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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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