Honeybees have had a terrible time. Many hives have lost their bees over the past 12 months because of the very cold wet summer of 2012 and the long cold spring of 2013. Honey prices will no doubt shoot up this year.
What happens to honeybee colonies when they suffer like this?
As honeybees are livestock, if there’s a shortage one way to make up the numbers is to import them. This is exactly what one farm in Shropshire has done, importing £10,000 of honeybees from Italy. Having lost 2/3 of its bees to bad weather (and I expect Varroa did for some of them) they bought some on the open market.
The British Beekeepers Association reported last week that one third of all honeybee colonies were lost last winter. The didn’t blame the losses on neonicotinoids.
While I love honey and I understand that honeybees play some role in pollinating crops and wild plants, I do wonder sometimes what the fuss is about. There are practically no native honeybees in the UK. They died out in the 19th Century. Almost all (99%) of our honeybees are grown from imported stock.
Draw a comparison with Bovine TB. Here, another livestock animal, the cow, is also prey to a nasty disease, bovine TB. When beef and dairy farmers lose cows to bTB, they restock, just like Beekeepers.
Cows need grass and bees need flowers; actually bees are perfectly happy feeding from oilseed rape – probably the commonest “flower” in the British countryside. They don’t need wildflower meadows any more than cows do.
It may be that cows feeding on wildflower-rich pastures or from wildflower-rich hay are healthier (there is some evidence but not much). It may be that honeybees are healthier when they feed on a wider range of nectar and pollen sources than just OSR.
But my suggestion is that it is the livestock (including honeybees) that benefit from the provision of food by nature, not vice versa. To say that honeybees are worth so many millions of pounds to society, misses the point that we are using them to extract environmental goods from nature. They are competing with wild pollinators for limited nectar and pollen. These bumblebees, moths and other insects are the real providers of pollination services to society and nature.