Monday, Aug 4, 2008
John Chapple stands among a hum of honeybees flying in and out of 10 hives in the gardens of Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s London residence by the River Thames. The insects are buzzing. For now.
Eighteen months ago about two-thirds of the 40 hives that Chapple keeps across the capital died off, including all 12 in his own back yard. London’s beekeepers collectively lost half of their colonies in the past two years. During last winter alone, almost a third of hives across the U.K. lost their bees.
“If you give hives a thump, you get a little roar coming back, and I didn’t get any roars,” Chapple, chairman of the London Beekeepers Association, said of the vanishing insects. “Some had bees but the mysterious ones had virtually nothing. Everything had disappeared.”
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Beekeepers say Britain may harbor Colony Collapse Disorder, an unexplained phenomenon that’s led to the loss of more than 35 percent of U.S. hives this year. The government estimates bee pollination is worth as much as 200 million pounds ($395 million) to agriculture and in April began a public inquiry on improving the health of honeybees, which wraps up this month.
Aside from the loss to crop pollination, a dearth of bees would also jeopardize the U.K.’s honey production, valued at as much as 30 million pounds a year by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
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In the U.S., where the Department of Agriculture estimates bee pollination adds $15 billion to crop values, government researchers are studying whether pesticides, parasites, diseases, or a combination of stresses are responsible for the losses. U.K. bees typically die off because of viruses, unusually damp weather and the varroa mite, a pest found locally since the early 1990s.
“We have all the components here of the American-style disorder in terms of disease,” said Tim Lovett, president of the British Beekeepers’ Association, listing a “toxic mix” of varroa, viruses, and a parasite called nosema. “Probably these sorts of losses haven’t been seen since the early 1900s. There is clearly something taking place over and above the normal vicissitudes of beekeeping.”
Lovett said the onus is on the government to act because it benefits from taxes it wouldn’t receive from agriculture without pollination by honeybees.
The association estimates bee pollination is worth 86 million pounds to apple growing, 25 million pounds to oilseed rape cultivation, and 20 million pounds to raspberry growers, among other crops.