‘Intensive’ beekeeping not to blame for common bee diseases

More ‘intensive’ beekeeping does not raise the risk of diseases that harm or kill the insects, new research suggests.

The study published today in Journal of Applied Ecology.

Beekeeping. Credit: Ben Rouse

Intensive agriculture – where animals or plants are kept crowded together in very high densities – is thought to result in higher rates of disease spreading.

But researchers from the University of Exeter and the University of California, Berkeley found this is not the case for honeybees.

Their study modelled the spread of multiple honeybee diseases and found that crowding many colonies together was ‘unlikely to greatly increase disease prevalence’.

However, the research only applies to existing honeybee diseases – and the findings suggest intensive beekeeping could accelerate the spread of new diseases.

‘Crowding of animals or crops – or people – into minimal space usually increases rates of disease spread’, said Lewis Bartlett, of the University of Exeter and Emory University.

‘We carried out this study because beekeepers were worried about this – especially given the many threats currently causing the decline of bees. To our surprise, our results show it’s very unlikely that crowding of honeybees meaningfully aids the spread of diseases that significantly harm honeybees.

Honeybees live in close proximity to each other naturally, and our models show that adding more bees does little to raise disease risk. So, beekeepers don’t need to worry about how many bees they keep together as long as there is enough food for them. The key is not whether they encounter a disease – it’s whether they are fit and healthy enough to fight it off’.

Although the paper says intensification of beekeeping does not boost diseases among honeybees, Bartlett points out that intensive agriculture – especially use of pesticides and destruction of habitats – harms bee species including honeybees.

The research was partly funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the National Institutes of Health.

Full paper (free to read for a limited time):

Bartlett, L., Rozins, C., Brosi, B., Delaplane, K., de Roode, J., White, A., Wilfert, L., Boots, M., Industrial bees: The impact of apicultural intensification on local disease prevalence, Journal of Applied Ecology, DOI: 10.1111/1365-2664.13461

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About the University of Exeter

The University of Exeter is a Russell Group university that combines world-class research with very high levels of student satisfaction. Exeter has over 22,000 students and is amongst the top 150 universities worldwide according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2019, the most influential global league table.

Exeter is also ranked 12th in The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide 2019 (Best in the South West) and 14th in the Guardian University Guide 2019. In the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF), the University ranked 16th nationally, with 98% of its research rated as being of international quality, while in 2017, Exeter was awarded a Gold rating in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) assessment. Exeter was named The Times and The Sunday Times Sports University of the Year 2015-16, in recognition of excellence in performance, education and research.  Exeter was The Sunday Times University of the Year 2012-13.

The University has four campuses. The Streatham and St Luke’s campuses are in Exeter and there are two campuses in Cornwall, Penryn and Truro. In a pioneering arrangement in the UK, the Penryn Campus is jointly owned and managed with Falmouth University. At the campus, University of Exeter students can study programmes in the following areas: Animal Behaviour, Business, Conservation Biology and Ecology, English, Environmental Science, Evolutionary Biology, Geography, Geology, History, Human Sciences, Law, Mathematical Sciences, Marine Biology, Mining and Minerals Engineering, Politics and International Relations, Renewable Energy and Zoology.

The University launched its flagship Global Systems Institute in 2018, a world-class, interdisciplinary community of researchers, students, citizens and partners that will solve global challenges through transformative research and education. This follows recent investments of more than £350 million worth of new facilities across its campuses in recent years; including the Living Systems Institute in 2016 in Exeter, and the Environment and Sustainability Institute on the Penryn Campus in Cornwall, together with new student services hubs, and new facilities for Biosciences, the Business School and Renewable Energy.