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 good, the bad, and the meaningless: Jeremy Corbyn’s “digital democracy” decoded

The Labour leader has promised to “democratise the internet” but which parts of his manifesto would actually work?

Jeremy Corbyn has promised to “democratise the internet”, speaking this morning at the launch of his eight-point digital manifesto at Newspeak House in east London.

“Labour under my leadership will utilise the advances of digital technology to mobilise the most visible general election campaign ever,” said Corbyn, in a clip you might have watched via a livestream on his Facebook page, before it crashed.

His manifesto sets out how Labour hopes to democratise the internet so that “no one and no community is left behind”. Unfortunately, some of the terminology used isn’t so universal. In a bid to leave no one behind, we thought we’d decode the manifesto here.

The good

Universal Service Network

It’s hard to argue with Corbyn’s first and largest proposal – that high speed broadband should be accessible across the country. According to the Labour leader, this would cost £25bn to implement and would be funded by his proposed National Investment Bank, “at minimal cost to the taxpayer”.

Although this is good idea, it isn’t a new one. The Conservatives already announced plans for a similar Universal Service Obligation (USO) in March, whereby everyone has a legal right to request download speeds of at least 10Mbps. A report published by Ofcom last week shows the government faces resistance from internet service providers who don’t want to pick up the extra costs.

The People’s Charter of Digital Liberties

Corbyn’s second most eye-catching suggestion, a digital bill of rights, is a win for anyone wary of Theresa May’s Snoopers Charter. He promises to protect personal privacy and “[enhance] the on-line rights of every individual”.

Platform Cooperatives

Corbyn hopes to “foster the cooperative ownership of digital platforms for distributing labour and selling services”, which essentially means he wants services like Airbnb, Deliveroo, and Uber to be community-run (or, if you want to go there, nationalised). The National Investment Bank would fund these websites and apps, which in turn would allow greater regulations of employment contracts. It’s quite a utopian vision and it's easy to be cynical about how this could work in practice, but were it to work, it could arguably transform the entire economy. 

The bad

Digital Citizen Passport

“We will develop a voluntary scheme that provides British citizens with a secure and portable identity for their on-line activities,” claims the manifesto, explaining this can be used to interact with public services like health, welfare, education and housing. Without even considering any potential security or privacy issues, the largest criticism of this proposal is that it already exists, as Gov.uk’s Verify.

Programming For Everyone

By encouraging publicly funded software and hardware to be released under an Open Source License, Corbyn dreams of a world where everyone can share code and learn from one another. Unfortunately, this opens up multiple privacy and security concerns, and Corbyn's other suggestions for teaching code also already exist, as the EU’s All You Need Is (C<3de) programme. 

The meaningless

Open Knowledge Library

At first glance, Corbyn’s proposal for a “free-to-use on-line hub of learning resources for the National Education Service” is undeniably a good idea. The problem is that the idea ends there, with no real discussion of what it is and how it will work. At present, it simply sounds like a publicly-funded version of resources that are already available (Wikipedia, anyone?).

Community Media Freedom

The entirety of this policy basically boils down to “free speech, yo”, which is, unarguably, fantastic. Unfortunately, the manifesto offers little in the way of explaining how its goals, such as stopping the “manipulation of software algorithms for private gain”, will actually be achieved.

Massive Multi-Person On-line Deliberation

Corbyn’s plan to “organise online . . . meetings for individuals and communities to deliberate about pressing political issues and participate in devising new legislation” is Twitter. It’s just Twitter.

The extras

Outside of this eight-point manifesto, here are some other things we learned today about Labour’s digital plans:

  • According to Corbyn, some MPs don’t turn on their computers because they do not know how to, which, honestly, shall we deal with that first?
  • Team Corbyn hopes that technology – and the visibility it allows – will be Labour’s "path to victory", which is nice, but what he really means is: memes.
  • Corbyn reveals he has an “open mind” about nationalising the broadband network.
  • Corbyn calls online abuse appalling and says that Labour is chasing down offensive material.
  • A team of coders called Coders for Corbyn have released some digital tools to show your support for the leader. Yes, the Corbyn emoji  Jeremoji  is about to be a thing.
  • The entire manifesto features “online” written as “on-line” and really, that is the real issue here.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.