The fall and rise of the Honey Bee

My starting point with keeping bees was to adhere to the principles of keeping everything connected with our land as natural and chemical free as possible especially regarding the use of insecticides, fungicides, herbicides or any other poisonous or noxious substances. For me it has to be that way even when it means taking risks and going against the tide.

Now I’m sure that many people will have read or seen a fair amount about how all “our bees” are supposed to be dying and by now most people must be either totally confused or have come to a completely erroneous conclusion based to some part on bad journalism leading to simple misunderstandings. Even bee keepers seem unable in many cases to get to grips with the reality of the situation as they reach for the chemical prevention to the supposed imminent death of their colonies which is essentially no different from the way so many people “garden” and “farm” with a spray for this and a poison for that.

If we start by dealing with the supposed death and decline of the honey bee in Europe it doesn't require a huge amount of time and directed research to discover that it simply isn't true although we do need to make some distinction between managed colonies and feral colonies when discussing the subject.

Managed colonies or Bee keeping can range from almost zero intrusiveness with minimal manipulations to being highly intrusive with intensive manipulation rather like the differences that can be seen in any other form of agriculture. In part this will depend on where the bees are kept and perhaps more so the reasons the bees are being kept and the attitude of the keeper.

As I said, a little serious research will reveal that in Europe the number of honey bee colonies “in boxes” is directly related to the number of people wanting to keep them.

If we take these figures both published in the Telegraph in 2010 we can get a better idea.

“”In England the bee population fell from 182,000 colonies in 1965 to 179,000 in 1985, to 83,000 today.  (20 Jan 2010) “”  

“”The British British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) said there are now more than 80,000 hives registered in Britain, compared to 40,000 in 2007.  (07 Jun 2010)””

The reality was that there had been a decline in people keeping bees across much of Europe that was more pronounced in some countries than in others. When this "decline" suddenly became a media issue in the UK coupled with confusing articles about the situation in the USA there was a doubling of the number of colonies in a matter of three years and if we wanted to continue to double the number of bee colonies we could do the same again and again and again the only constraints being sufficient nourishment for the bees either natural or provided. In economics I think it’s what is called “supply and demand” or “demand and supply” which ever way round it is. 

Bee keeping in an urban environment will tend towards a requirement for greater intrusiveness and manipulation although this really only needs to be some form of swarm control management for social reasons to avoid potential conflict with neighbours.  I think a case can also be made for swarm control in rural environments by way of artificial swarming in spring to avoid missed swarms and losses although I generally allow mine to swarm naturally.

Much is made of the Varroa mite and the potentially destructive role they may play in honey bee colonies. Personally as someone that doesn’t use any treatments or other varroa control methods I’m not convinced the situation is that straightforward and even the document linked to below is a bit vague.
e.g. “It is generally considered that varroa as a sole bee pest will probably not kill the colony for a number of years”
A number of years being what exactly? 2, 5, 10, 20?

Attempts to control or eradicate varroa mites from colonies can include a number of different methods or any combination of them and this link gives the official view, not one I really subscribe to but all that could be expected from a government agency

We also find in the document “Some bee colonies appear to show a tolerance to varroa. Retain these colonies and incorporate them into queen-rearing programmes”

The point to understand is that the varroa mite isn’t a disease, (many people think it is), and that the varroa mite doesn’t kill the colony. I should mention that in an INRA, (Institut national de la recherche agronomique), study it was shown that there was no significant difference in colony longevity between treated and untreated colonies that were not manipulated and allowed to swarm with some untreated colonies surviving 15 years with continuous occupancy. 

What can also be seen from the FERA document is that a large number of Bee keepers are happy to routinely slap pesticides and chemical treatments in their bee hives - something the consumer isn't told about anymore than being told what's been sprayed on their fruit and vegetables.

Anyway, the important point is that although honey bees may not be having the best of times everywhere they aren't about to disappear from the face of the Earth all the time there are Bee keepers. It may also be worth considering that without Bee keepers there would never have been large numbers of feral honey bee colonies and they would have been absent from large areas of Europe.

All in all good news in face of all the doom and gloom that continues to be churned out.

Not to say that there aren't problems with “Bees” in Europe because there most certainly are but with certain species of Bumble bee and Solitary bee, not Honey bees !!!

I keep three types of hive – Dadant, Warré and Kenyan top bar. The Dadant are used for honey production, the other two types are just for the bees to live in and are left to their own devices, sort of feral really and by now you will have gathered that I keep my bees without the use of any artificial treatments and with the bare minimum of manipulations and interventions. So far they haven’t had any nasty diseases, nor have there been losses beyond those that would be considered normal and acceptable when averaged out over time.