2 Decline


Bees under attack!
Government to review bee decline June 2013
Honeybee losses double in a year June 2013
Honeybee substitute food/CCD June 2013
BBKA honey survey and Plight of our bees 2012


honeybee on aster - Photo P Perry 2011The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has published a report that there are multiple factors behind pollinator losses (honeybees, bumblebees, solitary bees and other insects) across many parts of the globe over the past few years.
In Europe, the decline in managed bee colonies dates back to the mid 1960s and have accelerated since 1998, especially in the UK, France, Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Spain and Italy. North America has suffered losses since 2004 and this has left the continent with fewer managed pollinators than at any time in the past 50 years. Chinese and Japanese beekeepers, who manage western and eastern species of honey bees, have also had sudden losses of their bee colonies. And beekeepers along the Egyptian Nile are reporting signs of ‘colony collapse disorder’.

The factors range from the decline in flowering plants, the increasing use of insecticides in agriculture which are toxic or damaging to bees, air pollution, and the world-wide spread of pests as a result of shipments linked to the rapidly growing international trade. Climate change may also aggravate the situation by changing the flowering times of plants and shifting rainfall patterns which can affect quantity and quality of nectar supplies.

Habitat degradation and mono-agriculture have reduced the variety and quantity of flowering plant species that provide food for bees.

Parasites and Pests including the varroa mite and the small hive beetle (native to sub-Saharan Africa which has spread to North America and Australia and is now anticipated to arrive soon in Europe). New kinds of virulent fungal pathogens (which can be deadly to bees and other key pollinating insects) are spreading world-wide. Alien species such as the Africanised bee in the United States is in competition with bees for food. And the Asian hornet, which feed on European honey bees, has now colonized nearly half of France since 2004. The UK is on high alert for these insects.

Air pollution plays its part as it interferes with the ability of bees to find flowering plants and thus food. Bees could detect scents up to 800 metres in the 1800s but now, in many areas, can only detect flowers less than 200 metres away.

Bees may also be sensitive to electromagnetic fields from sources such as power lines. They have small crystals that contain lead in their abdomen.

honeybees on thistles - Photo P Perry 2011Insecticides, fungicides and herbicides – Some insecticides including those applied to seeds and others used to treat cats, birds, rabbits and fish may also be taking their toll. Insecticides can also affect the sense of direction, memory and brain metabolism in bees and some are even toxic to them. Laboratory studies have found that some insecticides can act together to be 1,000 times more toxic. Herbicides may be reducing the availability of plants and wild flowers not only for food but also for the larval stages of some pollinators.

Also some beekeepers may be adding to the problem by the way they manage their hives. A few of the treatments used against pests may actually be harmful to bees and re-using equipment and honey from dead colonies may be spreading disease and chemicals to new hives. And in America honeybees are transported from one farm to another in order to provide pollination services. Each year trucks carrying up to 2 million colonies travel across the continent. Mortality rates, following transportation, can be as much as 10 per cent of a colony

Bees are early warning indicators of wider impacts on plant and animal life. These multiple factors are linked with the way humans manage or mismanage their nature based assets, including pollinators. An estimated 20,000 flowering plant species, upon which many bee species depend for food, could be lost over the coming decades unless conservation efforts are stepped up. Scientists warn that without profound changes to the way we manage the planet, declines in the pollinators needed to feed a growing global population are likely to continue. About 100 crop species provide 90 per cent of the world’s food and over 70 of them are pollinated by bees.


The urgent and comprehensive review is expected to look at the evidence on what is happening to bees and other pollinators. There is great concern across Europe about the collapse of bee populations.

Minister Lord de Mauley will tell a bee summit in London, organised by Friends of the Earth, that this review will form a basis of a national pollinator strategy. It will bring together all the initiatives already under way and help develop new actions. It is expected to look at current policies, the evidence on what is happening to bees and other pollinating insects and what action charities and businesses are taking to help the insects.

He will go on to say that we must develop a better understanding of the factors that can harm these insects and the changes that government, other organisations and individuals can make to help.

The minister does not deny that it is important to regulate pesticides effectively and to avoid unnecessary pesticide use but bees would be vulnerable with or without restrictions on insecticides. Changes in land use, the type of crops grown, alien species, climate change all these will have an impact but the relative importance of these factors and their interactions is not well understood.

Andy Atkins, Friends of the Earth’s executive director, welcomed the review. He said we all agree prompt measures are needed to tackle the threats bees and other pollinators face, but an urgent and comprehensive route map and timetable are needed to ensure this happens. The minister’s plan of action must be in place when bees emerge from hibernation next spring  we can’t afford to gamble any longer with our food, countryside and economy.


Our recent long, cold winter following on from a disastrous summer has been very difficult for honeybees. All regions of England saw dramatic declines with the numbers lost being more than double the previous twelve months. Colony losses were the worst since records began, according to a survey carried out by the British Beekeepers Association. More than a third of hives did not survive the cold, wet conditions. British beekeepers have been surveyed at the end of March for the last six years.

Due to last summer and this winters weather, there was virtually a whole year when bees were confined and stressed just because of the environmental conditions. This meant that honey bees were often unable to get out and forage for pollen and nectar. These food supplies were also scarce.

Some beekeepers believe that the increased number of infections and disease that bees are subject to may have made them weaker and unable to cope with the colder conditions. The bees haven’t got the resistance and reserves that they once.
Weather also posed problems for newly emerged virgin queen bees. Growth of colonies depends on these queens being able to mate properly so they can lay fertilised eggs. If the weather is changeable, a queen may not execute her mating flight properly and if she doesn’t get mated then she can only lay drones (male honeybees). Drone eggs do not have to be fertilised. A colony that has only drones and no workers will not survive.

Another weather-related factor working against the bees is isolation starvation. Because of the cold, the bees cluster very closely together to maintain hive temperature and they consume the stores of honey closest to them. If the weather is so cold that they can’t actually move, the bees will starve although there may be plenty of food sources nearby in the hive.

All this is very bad news for honey supplies in the coming months. Last year the honey crop was down by over 70% compared to 2011. There is not great hope for a recovery this year. There is a cumulative effect because you have got to replace those hives. That is something the beekeeper now has to do.


Honeybee substitute food may contribute to America’s colony collapse disorder (CCD). US bee keepers lost nearly a third of their managed colonies during the winter of 2012-2013 being 22% up from the previous winter. Similar losses have been recorded in Europe where the European Commission recently banned three of the world’s most widely used neonicotinoid pesticides for a trial two years.

This is part of an ongoing decline in the population of crop-pollinating insects that threatens the species and our diet. Honeybees pollinate fruits and vegetables that make up roughly one third of the food we eat. Scientists have not yet discovered whether pesticides, parasites or habitat loss are to blame for the deaths. However, a new study shows that there may be another contributory factor to CCD.

Honeybees harvest nectar to make their own natural food honey. This contains compounds like p-coumaric acid that seem to help detoxify and strengthen the bees immunity to disease. Many commercial bee keepers in the US harvest and sell most of the honey produced by honeybees and use substitutes like sugar or high-fructose corn syrup to feed them. This widespread use of honey substitutes may be compromising the ability of honeybees to cope with pesticides and pathogens thus contributing to colony losses.


The summer weather has not been great for the last few years but 2012 has been the worst beekeeping year in living memory.

A hot spring followed by drought then rain and cold for the rest of the summer has had a devastating effect on our bees this year.  In mid-summer a starvation warning was issued by the British Beekeepers Association because their bee inspectors had found many colonies starving.
Colonies were unable to go out foraging for nectar and pollen due to rain/cold and high winds. Often our beekeepers had to supplement their food with fondant or sugar syrup to prevent them dying out. But we couldn’t give them the pollen which bees need to feed their brood. Due to this many colonies could not increase in size. Queens were often unable to leave on mating flights due to rain and many colonies wanted to swarm possibly to try to find food elsewhere. Many colonies died out. Supplementary feeding will have to be continued throughout this winter if we want our remaining colonies to survive.

This has culminated with seriously reduced honey yields with an average annual honey crop per hive down by 72 per cent compared to 2011 just eight pounds of honey produced per hive, compared to annual average of 30 pounds