I shouldn’t talk about this, but…

Apparently we should never discuss religion, politics or money at the dinner table, or probably anywhere else. I think this must have its origins in etiquette, and if so we have the French to blame, although it is no doubt a ‘faux pas’ to even suggest such a thing. It is not polite to upset people, so we should instead discuss the weather, which is something we can all agree upon (here in Manchester it’s raining – quelle surprise). Personally I like a good argument. I don’t see why civilised educated people can’t talk about things they feel deeply about. Then I go and do it, get into a shouting match and end up with indigestion. They were right all along!

It turns out that the health or otherwise of our buzzy pollinator friends, the honey bees, is another one of those subjects. The current accepted story is that honey bee numbers are collapsing and the end of the world is nigh. If this were indeed the case I would not be a happy walrus, but actually I’m as happy as a pig in…well, you know.

There is recent evidence from Germany of a massive decline in flying insects which is indeed a big worry. I don’t know why we should be surprised though. Human beings have completely dominated the earth and as our population rises (it is forecast to hit 9.7 billion by 2050 according to the UN) we change the planet. The environments which support wildlife are being changed by humans and so wildlife must adapt or die. Perhaps, on reflection, I’m not quite so happy as I thought…

Honey bees, however, are not really wildlife. Most honey bees are livestock, like sheep and cattle, although they are less easy to control. If you look for actual evidence you will quickly see that the numbers of honeybees are not declining at all. Sure, it goes up and down from region to region and from year to year, but the general trend is actually up, not down. I’ve already done the whole “death by graphs” thing on another post, but there is more on this discrepancy in an article by Jon Entine for those inclined to break etiquette still further.

What I find so depressing is how, even when people try to do good science in order to understand what’s going on there is always something in there for the evangelists and something for the sceptics. There was a big fanfare when research was published in June 2017 showing how neonic pesticides impact honey bees outside in the fields, not in a lab, and across three countries. I actually paid to download the full research paper and immediately I could see problems. For example, the honey bee colonies used for the experiment in Germany and Hungary were a decent size in Spring – about 11,000 bees per hive in Germany and 9,000 in Hungary. Yet for the UK they used tiny nucleus colonies of about 3,000 bees on average. Any beekeeper of any experience would know that you can’t expect the same performance from a nucleus as from a full sized colony. It is sad that simple things like this cast doubt on the findings. Furthermore, according to Dr Giles Budge of Fera, the UK colonies had a high varroa load which is a known driver of winter losses.

The research actually found that neonics had a positive effect on the German colonies during the summer (the hives near neonic treated crops did better than those away from them) which is a strange and rarely reported result.
One thing that really niggles away at me on the subject of these neonic pesticides is this: why would commercial beekeepers choose to take their bees to work on neonic treated oilseed rape if it killed them? It would make no sense – they owe their livelihood to keeping their bees healthy. The beekeepers I talk to say that their bees thrive on the oilseed rape. Odd that, isn’t it?

Having said all that I would much prefer any pesticide or fungicide to be used only when necessary, and in moderation. Blindly using the stuff “just in case” is overkill and insecticides do, after all, kill insects (including bees).

You will often read about the amount of honey bees lost in a year. For example in the year to April 2017 there were 33% losses in the USA. I think there are issues in the USA to do with how bees are managed, and particularly how they are moved around pollinating crops, which stress them more so than in Europe. In Europe the losses average out to around 15 – 20%. A pan-European epidemiological study reveals honey bee colony survival depends on beekeeper education and disease control. They found that the biggest drivers of losses were inexperienced beekeepers (who miss warning signs and therefore suffer losses from disease or parasites) and the weather, which is always a big factor in farming.

If you think about it, what would happen if there were no losses? Bees reproduce by swarming, and if they were not closely managed probably 70%+ would swarm in a year. Even if most of those swarms didn’t make it, some would survive and build new colonies, and suddenly the headlines would be about the dangers of “too many bees!” Yes, bee colonies die every year, but new ones get made every year too. This is why, at least on the subject of honey bee populations, I remain at least a contented walrus.

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