Some of the most plaintive, and most distinctively English, lines to be written by any of the Great War poets were those of Rupert Brooke in “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester”: “Stands the Church clock at ten to three?/And is there honey still for tea?”
Nearly a century after Brooke, homesick in Berlin, pined for his old Cambridgeshire residence (now occupied by Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare), chances are, though, that any honey served up for tea will not be English – or not for very much longer. For beekeepers have been struck two such terrible blows over the past 18 months that there may not be any home-produced honey in Britain’s shops by Christmas.
Wet summers this year and last prevented bees from foraging when plants particularly important to them, such as lime trees, were flowering. (Human beings may be averse to the rain, but bees can lose body temperature and become so sluggish that they cannot return to the hive, and ultimately die.) Earlier this year the head of the National Bee Unit, Mike Brown, warned of lower honey yields. But worse was to come.
Earlier this month angry beekeepers marched on Downing Street, complaining that the government had failed to allocate sufficient funds to apian health after one in three British bees failed to survive the last winter. Nearly two billion bees died between November 2007 and April 2008, succumbing to the depredations of the parasitic Varroa mite and to a phenomenon called “colony collapse disorder”.
Recently the Callington Honey Fair in Cornwall, which dates back to the 13th century, was nearly cancelled after stallholders had to pull out. Even the hive pictured, on the roof of Fortnum & Mason in Mayfair, London, has been affected; the store is still waiting for the batch of honey that was due in September. If a cure is not found, says the British Beekeepers’ Association, we may face the extinction of the apiaries.
This is bad news not just for bees, or for those who feel no buttered crumpet is complete without a spoonful of nectar. Eighty per cent of our flowering food crops are pollinated by bees, thereby helping provide a substantial part of the human diet. Brooke’s sentiment finds a more practical echo in Einstein. “If the bee disappeared off the globe,” he wrote, “then man would only have four years of life left.”