Bee Armageddon?

Typically, when I tell somebody that I am a beekeeper I get a big smile, then I get told how wonderful it is that I’m doing my bit to save the bees, because they are really struggling at the moment aren’t they? It seems churlish to tell them that the reasons I keep bees are (a) they are fascinating creatures, (b) it gets me out into the countryside and away from the noise of the city and (c) I like honey. Saving the bees would be great too, but just how bad are things for honey bees? Newspaper reports suggest imminent bee armageddon. Yet most beekeepers I speak to or read about are doing just fine thank you very much.

Here is a graph showing how much honey was produced in the world over the last 50 years. It comes from this EU Committee Report

world honey production

As you can see it is a story of continual growth, apart from a levelling off in the early 1990’s, which may have been to do with the arrival of varroa mites into honey bee populations. Global honey production has been steadily rising and doubled since the early 1960’s.

In Europe the number of beehives is recorded, although I’m not sure how accurate the numbers are, especially as European funding is given to member countries based on the number of hives they say they have. However, there is a clear trend of growth. The chart below from the same EU Committee Report shows a large increase in the number of beehives since 2003.

#hives

Even if you exclude the “new kids on the block” from Eastern Europe, the numbers have still gone up. Excluding Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia (RO, BG, HR) the number of hives went up by 1.5 million from 2004 to 2016, and increase of 13%. As you can see Romania has gone crazy for honey and I believe in 2015 it produced the most honey of any country in Europe.

You can see the same thing, more or less, with numbers of beekeepers. It’s not as dramatic as the number of hives but the increase in beekeepers across Europe between 2004 to 2016 was 38,000 (6% increase).

#Beekeepers

There are grave concerns in the UK about the arrival of the asian hornet on these shores, because it is a predator of honey bees. It was first sited in Gloucestershire in 2016 and the nest was found and destroyed. It was sited this year in Devon and again the very well organised teams deployed there found and destroyed the nest. It will surely end up established here, so we need to know how to deal with it. I have seen the “Killer Hornets!” headlines, referring to human deaths, but in fact their sting is similar to a bee sting and only people with an allergy are going to be at risk if they are stung. There is some good information here about the asian hornet.

This map shows where the asian hornet has spread to.

spread of asian hornet map

It comes from http://www.coloss.org/taskforces/velutina.

France has had to deal with asian hornets since 2004, so I had a look at what data I could find on French honey bees to see how they have coped. Since 2004 the number of hives in France has gone up from 1,150,000 to 1,636,000 (42% increase) although the number of beekeepers dropped from 100,000 to 75,000 (25% decrease).

This article from March 2015 is all doom and gloom, talking about a massive drop in honey production:
HONEY production has dropped to its lowest level in 20 years and has been halved over the past three years as bees are dying in unprecedented numbers: with pesticides and parasites being blamed.

With pesticides and parasites being largely blamed for the fall in bee numbers, last year was also particularly badly hit by poor weather, especially high winds.

Beekeepers saw mortality of between 50% and 80% in regions such as Provence-Alpes Côte d’Azur, Rhône-Alpes, Midi-Pyrénées and Languedoc-Roussillon.

The same publication had a rather different slant on things just seven months later:

The French honey producers’ union Unaf says output this year is estimated to be between 15,000 and 17,000 tonnes – up from a record low of about 10,000 tonnes in 2014, but still not enough to meet demand in France without importing from Asia or other European countries.

Thierry Dufresne, president of French bee observatory OFA said: ’It has been an exceptional year, the best in a decade.’

Good weather conditions, with plenty of sunshine and relatively few storms, have helped flowers bloom, providing a plentiful supply of nectar for bees.

I have highlighted the comments about weather. In the bad year for honey they had terrible weather and in the good year for honey they had good weather – coincidence?

Bee Culture magazine had an excellent article on how beekeepers in France have risen to the challenges posed by the asian hornet. They put out traps in the Spring to catch the queens before they can establish their nest. They modify the hive entrance with a wire mesh contraption which allows bees to get in and out safely…well, more safely anyway…and they wander around the apiary swinging badminton rackets at the hornets as they hover in front of hives. We can learn from this. I already have traps (for wasps) and half inch wire mesh (for mouse excluders) so once I buy a badminton racket I’ll be all set.

I am in no way belittling the threats to honey bees. The ever present varroa mite, the loss of good pastures for foraging, concerns about pesticides, the notoriously unreliable weather and now a bee eating hornet from Asia; things ain’t easy. So far the bees and their keepers have adapted to these threats and I see no reason for that not to continue.

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