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 buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.