Talk of the bees … “And Granny said in earnest ‘You’ve got to talk to your bees’”

Britain’s biodiversity may not be abundantly obvious in our everyday lives, nor may it immediately appear as splendid as an image of a tropical rainforest. One staggering example is that of our nation’s bees, of which there are over 260 species. Charles Darwin himself was fascinated and inspired by these creatures, spending 20 years fathoming the workings of their intricate hives; to this day you can visit his observation hive at Down House. Within his revolutionary book ‘The Origin of Species’ honey bees (Apis mellifera) were an integral part of the chapter ‘Instinct’. Lovers of Terry Pratchett’s Witches series, set in Discworld a parody of our own world, should also be acquainted with the importance, magic and mysterious qualities of bees. Bees have therefore become a symbol of British diversity and natural heritage (Defra, 2011a).

It is therefore worrying that such a truly inspirational species is experiencing such a dramatic and unprecedented decline. UK populations plummeted by 30% between 2007 and 2008, and bee keepers are still recording hive losses of up to 80%. Bees are the primary pollinating insects of British crops and wildflowers. Wildflowers are not only pollinated by bees, but the service bees provide distribute genetic material, keeping the populations healthy.

The 2011 UK National Ecosystem Assessment Technical Report revealed the dependence of crops on bee pollination; British Apple crops are 85% dependent on the actions of bees. In 2011 Dr Breeze and colleagues reported that the current maximum pollination levels of UK honey bees are 34%, compared to 70% in 1984.

Are the recent headlines featuring the state of the UK Apple harvest, 20% down on the expected crop, and the expected rise in prices a glimpse of what the future holds?

There is no one factor that can account for the decline in bee populations and the vital pollination service they provide. But the research so far suggests a combination of; intensification of agricultural practices, parasites and disease, increased usage of insecticides and pesticides, habitat destruction, climate change, bee keeping practices and a lack of people taking up the business of ‘talking to the bees’. One area that is receiving a lot of attention at the moment is the use of insecticides that may be directly affecting bees’ foraging and pollination behaviours.

Earlier this year several scientific studies on the subject of insecticides and their effects on UK and EU bee populations were published. Defra responded by conducting scientific research into the sub-lethal effects of neonicotinoid insecticides. The results were published in early September, along with an assessment of the research within this field in: ‘Neonicotinoid insecticides and bees’. This was followed by a parliamentary inquiry into the matter by The Environmental Audit Committee, a parliamentary Select Committee that works across government departments. ‘Insects and Insecticides’ was released late last month. The results so far are not dramatic enough to warrant a change in policy but both the Environmental Audit Committee and Defra believe that it is essential to continue research along this line.

If the disappearance of Britain’s bees is indeed a by-product of climate change, as weather conditions have a significant influence on their behaviour, then research into the anthropogenic factors such as those discussed above is most certainly a step in the right direction to halt the loss of our beloved bees.