Bee Trouble for hatherleigh
Neil Price, Co-Editor
| May 20, 2009: Vivianís Honey Farm
We are frequently asked how our bees are managing with all the bee problems. So here are a few answers.
The first question is Ďhave they got the bug/disease and can it be curedí.í ITí is varroa, a mite similar to red spider mite on fruit trees. European honey bees were taken to the Far East to improve their bee species, which had varroa but didnít cause trouble.The varroa did a species hop on to the european bees and it then spread across Asia and Europe, causing havoc as it went, arriving here in the 1980s. And it is here for good Ė it can be controlled but not got rid of. It lives on adult bees and breeds on the larvae, resulting in deformed bees being produced. So treatments are during the time bees arenít breeding, from august after the honey has been taken off.
The varroa also aggravate the viruses the bees already have had for a very long time, and used to be easily controlled by simple things like giving the hive a new queen. The simple explanation is that the varroa sucks in viruses from the bees when it is feeding, the concentration builds up and when it bites other bees, they get a much bigger, lethal dose.
We use an organic control, thymol, a natural disinfectant used in cough lozenges. The treatment starts as soon as the honey is taken off. Each hive has to have 3 doses given at 10 day intervals Ė the length of the varroa life cycle. It means opening the hives whatever the weather,which is disturbing for the bees,it is temperature dependent (it only evaporates above 18C, and takes ages to do 300 hives. One varroa in February can produce 300 by august, so honey bees can no longer live in hollow trees and cracks in buidings for more than a season. George is committed to breeding bees that are disease resistant and will require no treatments.
Another phenomenon described on TV is colony collapse disorder. The bees just up and off, here today and gone tomorrow, not swarming Ė just gone. The scientists at the moment think it is due to the build up of pesticides in the wax combs they breed in. They finally produce such a toxic atmosphere, no insect will go in the hive to clear up the food left.
It is also possible the pesticide build up is affecting the fertility of the drones, (as it does in human male fertility), so queens only lay for a short time, then run out of semen.. They used to keep laying for up to 3 years, now they sometimes only last 6 weeks.
How have the bees survived the winter? This winter11% of the hives didnít make it. The year before it was 23% Some beekeepers lose a lot more. In the good old days before varroa and new pesticides it was 4%. Our improvement could be Georgeís rigorous treatment last autumn leaving fewer varroa mites in the hives. Also building up the hives with pollen substitute (protein to bees) during February. The good crop of dandelion flowers this spring also provided valuable protein.
Last month bees were seen on the roads, apparently dying. This isnít the fault of varroa and pesticides Ė just the weather. It happens most springs. The sun is warm, the bees fly out, a cloud comes over and the cold wind chills them so they canít fly home.
How are our remaining 89% doing? Some were very small or had defunct queens and died. Some have increased well and a few produced honey. Then the weather went cold and wet and now they are eating it. Perhaps by the time you read this they will have got more.
The queen breeding programme started several weeks ago. The first batch of queens was put out in the hives but the weather changed and they havenít been able to mate. The next lot will have been put out by now.
The pesticide problem has become more critical since the production of a new type called nicotinoids which affect the nervous system of all insects. No longer do our windscreens get splattered with their corpses. And the RSPB has already recorded a 5% drop in insect eating birds. The nicotinoids are banned in some European countries, but the Agro Chemical Company and DEFRA assure us they are harmless, and that the bee viruses may be making bees more susceptible to damage. DEFRA says the troubles are all due to climate change!
So what can people do to help, both the bees and all insect life. On a large scale it is up to farmers. But our gardens can be pesticide free, not neat and tidy. Let some dandelions grow, leave uncleared spaces for insects to live in, cut hedges less often. And donít cover everywhere with gravel, paving and decking.
George and Margaret Tonkin