I have finally managed to digest the 53 page document at the core of DEFRA’s public consultation on improving honey bee health. It’s a mass of cross-references, repeated / scattered data and stop-start-in-another-place themes – almost as if they didn’t want you to read it. Nor could I get their response forms to edit in Word or OpenOffice so ended up printing it out, filling it in by hand and posting it back. I’m not sure how much effect that would be as the response form’s questions are pretty fuzzy, amounting to little more than “do you like bees”. I don’t know how the feedback they ask for will help set policy. Perhaps the purpose is to be able to say “we asked for & got feedback.” But there are some items of interest in it, and to save you wading through I shall distil them here.
The first thing that strikes you is the total lack of reference to pesticides as a bee health issue. That’s because they are not within the remit of the consultation (title: Proposed changes to managing and controlling pests and diseases) even though the consultation is also referred to as the “improving honey bee health” one. The authors’ motivation for this razor-like focus is unexplained but a charitable explanation is that they need to limit the scope of the consultation to get a meaningful response. They do mention in a footnote that other aspects of bee health “such as nectar-rich planting” are dealt with in other government policies.
On initially skimming this document I was alarmed by references to sanctions against beekeepers who did not conform to an (unspecified) pest management regime, and compulsory registration in Beebase. Re-reading it carefully calmed my qualms. They are suggesting compulsory registration only for commercial and semi-commercial bee farmers. Beebase records around 28,000 beekeepers in England & Wales, of whom only about 300 are bee farmers relying on beekeeping for their livelihood. Many (perhaps one third) of the hobbyists have only taken up the craft in the last 5 years. The bee farmers manage about 40% of the total 138,000 colonies. The rest are hobby beekeepers, and it’s known that Beebase does not cover all beeks. (Another website estimates there may be another 20,000 unregistered beekeepers outside Beebase.) Given these numbers you can see why the government does not favour compulsory registration or control of everyone – the effort in trying to over-supervise that mass of small beeks would not be cost-effective in terms of bee health and, thus, crops protected. In fact bee health is one of the few areas where the government does not try to make the supervision self-funding, because it realises the side benefits of pollination are worth the cost of maintaining the National Bee Unit & inspectors. Another reason DEFRA is hesitant about applying compulsory sanctions is that it may make the offenders less co-operative: in order to hide EFB, for example, they may use antibiotics, which would tend to help AFB spread. (By hiding the symptoms?)
Also mentioned is the reason they’re considering compulsory registration & treatment at all. It’s not fashionable to report good news, but apparently the levels of EFB used to be much higher in the 1940’s, and the present regime of inspectors with the right to inspect anywhere, coupled with free advice and mandatory draconian action when it is discovered, has proven very successful in drastically reducing EFB in Britain. Hurrah for bee inspectors! But it seems there are a few selfish individuals who are known to have EFB in their colonies, ignore destruction orders, and are thought to be the main reason some areas are continually re-infected by outbreaks. The report proposes that if these people continue to ignore requirements for a couple of years, a “name and shame” scheme be used to expose them to peer pressure. If they’re still uncooperative, their colonies might be treated / destroyed by inspectors, a summons for compulsory training issued, and the bill sent to them (though this would require new legislation).
CCD is considered a purely American phenomenon, but the report obsesses about varroa, reckoning that recent colony losses over winter of 15-20% (30% in 2007-2008) are largely due to this and the viruses it vectors. [Which makes me think, I’ve not yet lost a colony over winter in my TBH’s. Advantage, natural beekeeping? But the sample size is too small to be meaningful yet.] They propose extending the training / publicity given to this pest. I don’t see how it could be higher profile in the beekeeping world, but apparently some hobby beekeepers are ignorant about it. I don’t know enough beeks to judge this. Most I know are freethinking “natural” beekeepers intensely interested in their bees’ welfare, extremely vigilant about varroa and following their own strategies to deal with it (mesh floors, Apilife Var, icing sugar, the “Bond” or Live And Let Die natural selection strategy etc). As Gareth has pointed out, feral bees seem to be making a comeback (a colony in my neighbour’s roof has been vigorous for some years now) and it seems what the bees really need is just a slight edge to tip the balance in their favour, such as improved hygiene, rather than a chemical crutch. However DEFRA’s report implies there are plenty of (honey-centred?) beekeepers who under-emphasize pest control, and that DEFRA favours a chemical solution. This may be because it is easiest to explain and requires less time per hive.
The report is rightly concerned with cross-border biosecurity. Did you know that if you import a queen into the UK, you are meant to re-cage it and send the cage to the National Bee Unit so they can check it for disease / parasites? I wonder how many importing beekeepers do that. (Comments welcome from anyone who’s actually imported a queen!)
Another aspect of biosecurity mentioned is recycling wax in frames to the same apiaries. Again, not an issue for natural beeks, partly as we tend not to have several widespread apiaries.
In the last couple of years, honey packing plants, and queen / nucleus suppliers have created (voluntary) codes of practice for biosecurity.
Apart from the aforementioned EFB, AFB and varroa, DEFRA are very concerned about Small Hive Beetle, Asian Hornets, Nosema, and Tropilaelaps mites – but on these I think the natural beekeeping movement’s views are aligned with conventional beeks’. DEFRA thinks beeks are handling acarine, chalkbrood, Chronic Bee Paralysis virus and sacbrood OK and does not propose further measures on these. DEFRA is, of course, watching for other more exotic threats such as Africanised honey bees and as-yet unidentified problems.
DEFRA is very interested in Lateral Flow Devices as a way to detect EFB. These are currently expensive but may become cheap enough for commercial beekeepers to use in future. This is the kind of tech used in home pregnancy tests.
My key concerns
- Who are the beekeepers with “poor disease prevention practices” they mention? Is this influenced by some of the black propaganda against natural beekeepers such as is found on the Bee Farmers’ Association website? Hopefully not, as the study implies the “problem” beekeepers are actually bee farmers!
- Who decides what an “authorized” treatment for varroa is, and will DEFRA be open minded towards fringe experimenters?