At a seminar in Westminster, the four speakers presented new research on the crisis and highlighted the far-reaching impact bees have on the eco-system. Findings showed England suffered the biggest decline out of the whole of Europe, with bee numbers down 54%.
Disease, habitat destruction, climate change and insecticides have all been blamed for the depleting numbers of bees, which was first noted in the USA five years ago.
Dr Simon Potts, research fellow at Reading University, said food security would be one of the “big penalties we risk” if Britain ignores the problem. The meat and dairy industries could be affected as the clover on which cattle graze is dependent on insect pollination to reproduce, as do a large number of orchard fruits and berries.
He said: “these changes would hinder the ability for the UK to produce its own food and mean we’d have to rely more on imported goods.”
Bees contribute around 13% of the UK’s total agricultural value, the equivalent to £440 million per year. With the demand for more British-produced foods and bio fuels Dr Potts said our reliance on bees’ activity was only likely to increase.
The alternative of having humans scatter the pollen manually would cost £1.5 billion a year, a price that Dr Potts deemed “not viable for the UK”.
Dr Clare Carvell presented research done by her team at Oxford’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology on restoring bee habitats. “Due to intense farming practices there’s been a general decline in the plants pollinators need,” she explained.
To calls for more practical help and advice for keepers and farmers, she said a DVD on habitat management co-produced with Natural England would be available later in the year.
Dr Ivor Davies, master of the British Beekeepers Association, highlighted the need for more drugs to combat diseases – notably the parasite Varroa – that are plaguing the bee population. He said: “Bees are under great stress and their immune systems are being compromised as a result. Only one approved medicine is on the market at the moment.” He added that this shortage had led to keepers looking oversees for riskier alternatives.
£12.8 million of funding has already been made available by DEFRA and the Welsh Assembly to maintain pollinator numbers. However, some of the speakers were sceptical about how useful parliament’s efforts had been so far.
There were also concerns that too much of the funding will be siphoned into research science as opposed to targeting the immediate problems. Dr Davies said: “One of our big issues is better husbandry. We’re a little worried about how the money is going to be spent.”
According to Dr Davies, the BBA even withdrew from the board of government initiative ‘Healthy Bees’ because “we felt we were wasting our time there.”
He added, on a more positive note, that they had seen a “tremendous increase” in numbers of amateur keepers recently as a result of the publicity attracted by the demise of the honey bee.
The seminar was a joint venture by the British Ecological Society and the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.