Issue 31: 2015 12 03: Buzzing Off

03 December 2015

Buzzing Off

by J.R.Thomas


Rogue MaleThere is another much smaller world which mirrors many of the political themes of these troubled times.  In it we are at loggerheads, or flower heads maybe would be more accurate, with Europe.  There is great concern about the incursion of a number of immigrants, aggressive immigrants, taking the housing and the employment of natives.  Meanwhile, productivity is in decline, output is dropping, and the products are growing ever more expensive.  And to cap it all, big business is threatening the little local artisans, and, so many consumers say, lowering the quality and variety which we have enjoyed for years.

It is the quality and variety of what we spoon on to our toast and bread that worries the consumers, or at least the more discerning end of the market.  And the producers whose livelihoods and lifestyles are under threat, are honeybees.

Or are they?  That is a surprisingly hard question to get an answer to. When it comes to threats to British wildlife it is always hard to know what is really going on. That is partially because wildlife is not good at filling in forms and answering surveys.  Those who would like to know more have to carry out difficult observations of insects and creatures whose usual reaction on seeing a human is to go and hide, often in a hole or dense vegetation.  So the scientists who take an interest in these things end up having to mix measuring, so far as they can, with generally observing trends.

In this they often have the enthusiastic support of the animal loving public.  But the public tends to be rather choosy in its choice of favoured wildlife.  Bees, especially bumblebees (the ones that look like a bee is supposed to look like) are favoured. Wasps are not. Hedgehogs (the new great amateur conservationist cause) are much loved.  Rats are most definitely not; the average motorist would swerve to avoid the road crossing hedgehog, but would aim straight for a rat in the same lane. Badgers, for all their nasty ways (prone to tuberculosis and digging up country vegetable patches) are currently adored and their numbers have greatly expanded.  Fifty years ago it was a very rare thing indeed to see a badger;  now, in spite of being nocturnal and shy, they are surprisingly visible. The evidence of that is available on any country lane; badger corpses seem to be almost as common as hedgehog corpses once were.

The odd thing about the public enthusiasm for badgers is that they are deadly enemies to the other fashionable wildlife of the moment, hedgehogs and bees.  Badgers consider them to be very fine eating and have the snout and teeth to be able to successfully attack both. The decline in wild bees – probably reduced by three-quarters in the last fifty years – is thought to be very closely connected with the rise in the population of badgers, believed to have tripled in twenty years.  These broad figures have to be treated with caution, but there is no doubt of the trends.

It is not just wild bees that are declining, but farmed bees are also in trouble, and here the statistics are more reliable.  The number of colonies is falling, as is their output, driving up prices steeply, as us Winnie the Pooh types forever stopping at cottage gates to buy a couple of jars know only too well. The numbers may be falling but the causes are not that clear.  Number one culprit is traditionally the varroa mite, a tiny but unpleasant terrorist of the hives, whose nauseous habits we will not dwell on in a magazine intended for family reading, but which can destroy bee colonies in a season.  If not prevented by vigorous action it can cause a complete wipe out of nearby bee populations over a wide area.  (No broader political points intended here.).  In Britain and Europe the mite is present but beekeepers have learnt broadly how to resist it, so there has not been the complete collapse of bee colonies that has been seen in Arizona, parts of Canada, and Hawaii.  But it has lowered the number of British bees overall and increased the expense of running a bee business.

What may be much more damaging to the health of the bee industry, though, is that there is simply less for the bees to eat. What the bee likes is to graze on the pollen of summer flowers, which, incidentally, is also what the dedicated human honey eater tends to prefer, at least sentimentally.  Not just flowers in the English country garden, welcome though they are, but traditionally the flowers that grew on road verges, in unkempt deciduous woodland, and most of all, in English country meadows – both those used for summer grazing, and those cut for hay. And we should not forget that most delicious of all honeys – heather honey, from bees whose hives are taken to the English and Scottish moors for the summer, and who spend their upland sojourn grazing among the various forms of heathers and upland flowers.

All of these landscapes have undergone great change – the moors have been reduced, nibbled round the edges for farming and grazing, more intensively managed by burning for the grouse shooting fraternity. In the lowlands the reduction in habitat has been much greater.  Roadsides are often cut for safety – though really, one suspects for bureaucratic tidiness.  Woodland is more closely managed for commercial purposes.  Most damaging of all to the questing bee, England’s lowland meadows have practically gone – some ninety five percent of them ploughed for arable farming or more intensive grassland. That has been much more damaging to the bee than varroa.

Of course, the plants that grow in the place of lost wildnesses do have flowers to some extent. Usually not much, and where they do – such as the gooey yellow rape that shrieks across arable lands, the honey produced is, let us say, not to all tastes; borage is rarer than rape but equally insulting to crumpets and toast.

Now a possible third major threat to the survival of the bee population has been identified. This is the use in modern agriculture of neonicotinoids in chemical sprays; it is thought, though far from proven, that these insecticides bring long term decline to bees (and many other insects, some friendly and others, in agricultural terms, unfriendly). This is what they are designed to do, after all, though the chemical manufacturers say that as insecticides they are very selective and do not affect bees. Also, they argue, that if farmers did not use these milder sprays they would use less selective and more powerful ones – not an argument which has gone far to commend itself to beekeepers or conservationists.  The European Union has banned their use, but those readers who follow the relationship of Britain to the EU will not be surprised to learn that Britain has an opt out, and has opted out, so their use is still legal here.  The evidence as to the effect of neonicotinoids remains controversial, and even in the EU it is not clear whether, since the ban, there has been much sign of a recovery in the bee population. However, it does seem from studies in Germany and also in the USA that the insecticides do cause colony wide damage if not used correctly and in very managed conditions.

British beekeepers have had several attempts at trying to get a ban or reduction in their use, and are currently trying to get support for a new private members bill so that a debate may be held in the Commons on this subject. You may find, next time you stop for jars of honey, that the artisan honeymaker presses you to sign this petition; if you don’t want to have your future crumpets just with jam, you might want to.

And therein lies the risk.  Bees are the best and most active pollinators we have. Without them our production of many fruits and vegetables would be drastically reduced.  If the bees go, it is not just an absence of honey on your crumpets – there will be far less berries for the jam you substitute as well.  If we are concerned about the long term delights of our palates, it may that we need to look more carefully and quickly at the welfare of the hives from which so much industry and goodness comes.

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