Since I started this blog I have rattled on about all the positives of bees and beekeeping, and paid scant attention to the travails that befall the humble bees. I have alluded to the odd problem or two, and I try not to be too pessimistic, but a recently published document has put everything in perspective for me, and I hope that it will do the same for you. I’m not asking you to read it, although it would be good if you did, just take on board the salient points made. They are few, but devastating. The Living Planet Report 2014 is published by The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and is a yearly ‘state of the planet’ report. Its simple message this year is ‘In the forty four years since 1970, more than half of all the wild animals on this planet have disappeared. In the same period of time the human population has doubled’. It’s actually 52% of all mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish. This has been brought about by many different criteria, but mainly by man’s population growth and increased needs.
If vertebrate species have suffered so dramatically, then you can bet your Blue Peter badge that insects have too. We know this anyway, because most people are aware of the decline of honeybees, and all sorts of things have been blamed for their demise from Microwave signals, neo-nicotinoid pesticides and climate change to mobile phones, monoculture farming and the varroa mite. In truth, they have probably all paid their part, and in the United States, transporting bees thousands of miles to pollinate vast areas of one crop, and then another, has taken its toll, but honeybees are not native to North America anyway.
Here in the UK, there is one problem which has far more effect than any other. Like all living creatures, bees suffer from ailments, but not nearly as many as human beings. They do suffer from diseases passed from one bee to another, and from one colony to another, but most of these problems, in the form of viruses stem from parasites. The most common of these parasites is not even originally a parasite of our European honey bee (apis mellifera). It’s original host is one of the Asian honeybees (apis cerana). Historically, the populations of these two honeybees didn’t cross, but our honeybee is capable of living in such large colonies, is more docile and produces more honey, and so it was exported further and further east, until it met apis cerana. Quelle domage! as the French would say. This Asian honeybee is bigger than ours and is able to withstand the ravages of its parasite, the varroa mite (varroa destructor). It can also fight off the viral infections passed to it by its passenger. Our smaller bee is not up to that task and colonies of bees can be wiped out by this harridan. European honeybees living in Asia were soon parasitised by enormous numbers of the mites and these were passed from colony to colony, slowly making their way back to the source of the European honeybee, and in 1990 the United Kingdom first reported varroa mites in British hives.
The problem spread like wildfire, to the point that 99.9% of all British hives now have varroa mites, and they are tenacious little devils. There can be thousands in any one hive, if left unchecked. The adult female goes into a cell containing a bee larva and lays up to five eggs. When the cell is sealed for the larva to pupate, the varroa eggs hatch and the mites attach themselves to the developing bee – a meal for life. They suck the equivalent of the bee’s blood (haemolymph) and deplete its health, but at the same time. Infect it with some pretty nasty bugs.
We can treat bee colonies to combat these mites, but not the infections and total eradication is almost impossible. The medicines are all organic miticides and their chemical names are known to most of us – oxalic acid (rhubarb juice), formic acid (ant stings), thymol (from thyme) and pyrethroids (from pyrethrum daisies). We can’t use insecticides, because bees are insects. All treatments work on the same basis and we have mesh floors in beehives these days, for just this problem. If one of the treatments is applied, the mites are affected and release their hold on the bee. They drop to the floor, but as the floor is mesh, they pass straight through, and can’t get back to their hosts.
Hey Presto! In the photograph, all the dark spots are dead varroa mites. The other particles are pollen, sugar crystals and beeswax. There is one more treatment which has limited success, but it is totally harmless. Giving a colony of bees a severe dusting with icing sugar can reduce the number of mites considerably. As the bees are covered in their favourite food, sugar, they set about grooming themselves and each other. In the process they knock a lot of the mites off their perches, and again they fall to the floor and through it, landing on a solid, removable floor, some way below.
Historically beekeepers destroyed their bees each year, so that they could collect the honey, and then simply collected a swarm the following Spring. This is now considered wasteful and hasn’t been done for about a hundred years, but it isn’t possible anymore. The number of wild colonies of bees which provided those swarms has declined to almost zero, because they were infected with varroa mites, like all other colonies, and nobody was treating them, so they died out. Albert Einstein allegedly said ‘If bees die out, man will follow in four years’. Whether he said it, or not is irrelevant. It is far truer these days to say ‘If we don’t keep honeybees, they will die out.’