A crisis amongst Welsh bees

Jonathan Brooks-Jones looks at a National Assembly research report that flags up a disturbing decline in our pollinators

Bees are declining in Wales to a far greater extent than in either England or Scotland. This warning is contained in Bee Health a paper published this week by Katherine Daniels, a researcher with the National Assembly’s Commission’s research service. Her claim is based on statistics, in the table below, showing the number of bee colonies in recent years across the UK found to be dead on inspection. As Ms Daniels said, “The proportion found dead on inspection is much higher in Wales than it is in England or Scotland.”

Table 1: Colonies inspected versus colonies found dead in Great Britain





































Table 1: A comparison of the number of colonies inspected and the number of dead colonies found in England, Scotland and Wales. *Data for 2011 is the data available on 14 June 2011, not for the complete year. Source: NBU Beebase.

The reasons for bee decline, which is extremely serious for the pollination of crops, is thought to be due to a combination of factors, including diseases, loss of habitat, pests, pesticides and poor weather. The loss of colonies has been particularly severe in recent years, with 30 per cent of colonies lost over the winter of 2007-08, and 20 per cent lost the following year.

The number of parasites and viral diseases affecting bee colonies have increased dramatically over the past decade. For example, the Varroa Destructor parasite has spread throughout the UK since it first arrived in 1992  and is capable of killing a colony in one year if left without treatment. The parasite is so effective, it can take just 2,000 Varroa mites to cause the collapse of a colony of 30,000 bees. The report also notes that there has been a steady decline in wild flowers over the last century, due to increasingly intensive farming. Since the 1930s more than 97 per cent of wildflower meadows have been lost. The report says:

“Wildlife gardens are becoming increasingly important for providing good forage for bees as often flowers grown in private and cultivated gardens produce little or no pollen or nectar.”

Of the food provided in our supermarkets, about 80 per cent exists as a direct result of crops pollinated by bees. While honeybees are responsible for most commercial pollination, some bumblebees are also used to pollinate bean, fruit and tomato crops. More than 80 per cent of wild flowers and 84 per cent of cultivated crops need insect pollination in order to reproduce. The report says that bees are worth around £200 million a year, but the cost of replacing them would be far higher. As it says:

“The cost of hand pollination as an alternative to bee pollination is greater than the total market value of the crops, at over £1.5 billion per year.”

In Wales we have about 4,000 beekeepers that between them have about 20,000 colonies. This compares with about 32,000 beekeepers in England who have an estimated 230,000 colonies.

While the greatest economic value of honeybees is in their role of pollination of wild flowers, crops and garden plants, they also provide honey for food and pollen, propolis and wax, each valuable for nutritional, medical and manufacturing purposes. UK honey production is worth in the region of £30 million, while 80 per cent of honey consumed in the UK is imported.

The importance of maintaining the bee population has been acknowledged by the Welsh Government, which supports a bee health programme. Along with Westminster Agriculture Department (DEFRA) the Welsh Government published the Healthy Bees Plan in March 2009. In 2008 the Welsh Government contributed £280,000 to improving bee health in Wales, and the following year it contributed £486,000 to the National Bee Unit. The Welsh Government along with other partners are currently undertaking research into Ribonucleic acid interference (RNAi), which has been shown to be effective against varroa mites. They are also re-examining the risks of using certain pesticides which may be affecting the behavior of bees and contributing to the loss of colonies.

Jonathan Brooks-Jones is sub-editor for clickonWales.org

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