In common with other living things, honey bees are experiencing several challenges to their survival. The key factors affecting bees can be broken down in five main areas:
1 Habitat Loss
Intensive farming practices, such as removing hedgerows and growing single crops over large areas of land have drastically reduced the quantity and quality of the available forage from wild flowers. Bees need a range of plants that provide pollen and nectar to keep them happy and healthy. We have seen that bees kept in cities on roof tops often do very well due to the diverse nature of city gardens. However it is not all bad, the recent increase in farmers growing oilseed rape has led to many beekeepers getting an early spring crop of honey.
2 Disease and Pests
Just like humans, bees can get sick. Diseases and parasites can do a lot of damage to bees. Bees can become too weak to fly or be unable to reproduce. In some cases, becoming infected can even lead to death of bee larvae, pupae or the adult bees.
The parasitic mite Varroa destructor, (varroa mite) which is now affecting virtually all honey bees in mainland Britain, is having an extremely harmful effect on bee colonies. The mites take valuable nutrients from the fat stores of the developing bees and, more seriously, transmit numerous bee viral diseases that weaken bee colonies and can lead to their death. Varroa destructor is not a native species and came from Asia. Some argue that our bees can in time adapt, but at the moment most beekeepers use chemicals to control the problem. A further concern is the possible establishment of other non-native species that could affect bees in this country. Of particular concern is the Asian hornet, which has devastated bee colonies and beekeeping across much of Europe.
It isn’t easy being a farmer, especially when the crops they are trying to grow keep getting eaten by pests. That is why some farmers use pesticides to protect their crops. However, in certain circumstances, these chemicals can cause some serious health problems to insects like bees, including nervous system failure, muscle spasms or even death. Recently there has been a lot of concern about a group of pesticides called Neonicotinoids; some of which have relatively recently been banned across the EU.
4 Climate Change
Scientists believe that climate change is also impacting bees. Climate change is bringing on extreme weather events which can affect the timing of when flowers start to bloom. Bees and plants in the UK have adapted over thousands of years to a particular climate; if this starts to change quickly it may upset their cycle of life.
5 Invasive plant species
Whilst invasive plant species can be bad for bees by out-competing native plants and taking away forage, they can sometimes be good for bees but bad generally for the environment. A good example of this is Himalayan Balsam, which is at fault for clogging up streams and river banks but is also a great source of nectar and pollen in late summer.
Beekeepers cannot change all of these, but if they are knowledgeable they can assist the bees by providing well managed hives, extra feed if required and some medical treatments.
Honey will still be the honey we enjoy, but the quantity produced may well be less without our help.