Beekeeping at Roots and Shoots, Kennington

I am attending the excellent annual beekeeping course at Roots and Shoots, following in my father’s footsteps as a beekeeper. However unlike most of my fellow students, I’m NOT becoming a beekeeper because of an interest in maximizing a supply of honey for family and friends. My father and other beekeeping relatives made me aware years ago of the difficulties caused by the spread of the Varroa which has wiped out 30% - 50% of UK honey bees since 1992. What I have discovered through careful questioning of the more scientific lecturers is that it is beekeepers who are responsible for the spread of the Varroa mite. This little mite lived in a reasonably symbiotic relationship with Asian bees. These tropical bees have a much easier life than European bees because there is much more nectar available for them. The Asian bee therefore doesn’t need to work so hard as a European bee and is genetically more docile and less energetic. The Varroa mite was therefore less of a problem to the Asian bee.

However when some European beekeepers heard that they could get a more docile colony of bees by importing queen bees from the tropics, they found this very attractive. Of course any sensible ecologist, or anyone aware of the writings of someone like Edward O Wilson or anyone who appreciated the devastation caused by taking American Grey squirrels to England or taking the South American Cane Toad to Australia or any of the other man made ecological disasters would have realized the risks posed by transporting bees around the planet. Nevertheless modern beekeepers imported these Asian bees with their Varroa mites to Northern countries where the bees, because there is less nectar available, have to work much harder. In Europe, the weakening of the colony by this mite is often the difference between life and death for the colony. So why did these destructive beekeepers do this –and continue to do this? The answer is that the north European bee, being much more energetic than a tropical bee, is more easily irritated by rough handling. A docile tropical bee and its hive can be knocked around by an unsympathetic beekeeper with far less of a reaction. Although not put to me in quite those terms, this seems to me to be the truth of the matter.

Careful questioning has also revealed how honey bees have evolved to have symbiotic relationships with their native plants; bumble bees have relationships to other plants; solitary bees to others; wasps and flies have still different plants. Nature relies on specific creatures to pollinate specific plants, including probably most of our food crops; something that will be known to any good ecologist. Moreover a New Zealand honey bee has adapted to work with New Zealand plants, not British plants. There are also plenty of imported plants that are also good for honey bees but there are plenty that are completely useless for honey bees and many of the other native insects. Of course weather and seasons change and the available food therefore also changes. We now know that the colony changes according to the food flows. Within the hive, there are bee larvae of a type most suited to collecting pollen and there are bee larvae most suited to collecting nectar and no doubt all sorts of other larvae most suitable for collecting other available foods that ebb and flow over the months. These sophisticated creatures are so finely attuned to their environment that the colony accelerates the development of the larvae that will produce the workers most needed for the current food flow. Just think of the confusion caused by queen bees with a genetic makeup not suited to the local environment. Mixing bees with the wrong plants adds to the strain on the bee colony by giving both them and their competitors less suitable plants, so there will be more competition for the plants that are suitable for the increasingly exhausted honey bees.

When will man learn to tamper less with nature? When will politicians take action to forbid these destructive practices? When will the political lobbying for the interests of greedy commercial companies be ignored by politicians and the common sense advice of those academics that remain free of commercial funding be listened to and acted upon by politicians?

I hope that by becoming as much of a bee expert with an ecological interest as time allows me, I will become part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

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