Alarming media coverage has spurred efforts to keep up Britain's bee population. So what will the results be? Rob Brown & Cedric Porter weigh up the efforts to return the hum to our hedgerows

If they die, we die. It’s a sobering thought and one that we’ve been forced to contemplate numerous times over the past few years as a succession of crises has hit the global bee population.

Just this week we were told the familiar bumblebee faces extinction through inbreeding, while another report warned global warming was threatening bees and other fl ying insects to such an extent that some species of plants were facing a 50% drop in pollination rates.

Add these latest horror stories to the tales of parasitic invasions and colony collapse disorder , and it seems these little workers are facing a bleak future indeed. And, with roughly a third of our food reliant on pollinating insects, the implication is that so are we.

Which is why it’s so important the grocery industry takes action to help restore their numbers, says Professor Francis Ratnieks from the University of Sussex’s Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects (LASI), the UK’s leading honeybee expert.

He makes no bones of the fact that he thinks much of the press coverage has been “speculation and bullshit ”. However, while the short-term prognosis is not as dire as reports claim, the long-term threat is very real, he says.

“We still have a healthy population of honeybees in Britain but it’s declined from a million to 250,000 hives in the past century,” he says. “If we have the same decline in the next 100 years, we definitely will be short of bees. I view this as awake up call.

One that, fortunately, is starting to be heeded. In June, as part of a range of initiatives being undertaken by the retailer, Sainsbury’s turned beekeeper, setting up 38 ‘bee hotels’ on the roofs of its London stores to help reverse the decline in solitary bees; Waitrose and Marks & Spencer are funding research; and The Co-operative Group is campaigning against the use of some pesticides and encouraging consumers to take up beekeeping.

Some initiatives are already yielding results. “This year’s bumblebee numbers are up on previous years,” says oilseed rape grower Mark Bush from the Perthshire farm where he’s been planting wild flowers around his crops to encourage the insects he relies on. “We’ve had very good yields this harvest due to good pollination.”

But although the buzz is back in some parts of the country, there’s still a long way to go before it’s back in others. To restore numbers on a wider scale, we need to understand why the bee populations have been reduced in the first place.

In June, the Insect Pollinators Initiative – supported by a number of weight bodies including Defra, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills,
and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council – announced the launch of nine projects to explore the causes of the decline of all pollinating insect populations and find ways to boost numbers. The projects, which will cost about £10m over fi ve years, will bring together
world-class researchers to untangle the factors that have led to the decline in bee numbers.

The finger of blame has swung wildly. Pesticides, climate change, GM crops and even radiation from mobile phones have all been in the dock at one time or another but disease and the parasite varroa destructor – a microscopic mite that reproduces in hives and attaches itself to honeybee larvae before they hatch, spreading viruses – remain prime suspects.

With funding from a number of industry sources including Waitrose, Ratnieks and his colleagues at LASI are spearheading much of the research and have gained fresh insight into the foraging habits of honeybees that could help unravel the mystery.

They have been trying to build up a picture of the creatures’ habits – including the famed waggledance, the movement they use to communicate the location of food – and have begun a new breeding programme for so-called ‘hygienic bees ’.

“I don’t want to clam this is a magic bullet but it’s something we know can be beneficial ,” says Ratnieks, who has been working towards the breeding
programme for a decade. “This is one thing we can do. It has to be applied by beekeepers and it requires honeybee breeding and queen rearing. Hygienic bees remove dead brood, dead larvae and pupae swiftly and in doing so can reduce the spread of brood diseases from bee to bee and the ability of the varroa mite to breed.”

But the real villains of the piece could be us. Most experts agree the key reason for the decline in honeybee, bumblebee and solitary bee numbers is the removal of the habitats they rely on for food to make way for intensive agriculture.

“More than 90% of all traditional hay meadows have disappeared over the past 70 years, along with clover fields and seminatural habitats,” says Dr Ben Darvill, director of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BCT).

With fewer foraging sites, overall bumblebee numbers have fallen 60% since 1970, says Darvill. Two of the UK’s 25 species of bumblebee – one of the most effective pollinators – are now extinct.

Other insects essential to the pollination of food crops are also in decline. Seventy-five per cent of Britain’s butterfly species are threatened, according to
the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, while the populations of Britain’s 270 solitary bee species are thought to have fallen by 35% in the past 20 years.

The BCT is currently concentrating its efforts on increasing numbers of the two rarest UK bumblebees - the Shrill Carder and the Great Yellow - and reintroducing the native Short-haired bumblebee using bees descended from those exported to New Zealand 100 years ago.

Another response to the crisis has been the modification of European bumblebee sub-species, bombus terrestris dalmatinus, a highly effective pollinator that’s been used by indoor fruit and veg growers for more than 20 years but banned from outdoor use by wildlife legislation.
Crop protection company Certis says the new British version of the bee, which is safe for introduction to British farms, could provide a lifeline for fruit growers.

“Many outdoor fruit crops have a very short flowering period,” says Simon Jones from Certis. “Bumblebees are active early in the season and effective pollinators even in poor weather. They have a crucial pollinating role when other pollinators may not be flying or are absent.”

Well-pollinated plants are more likely to deliver higher yields, better quality and fewer misshapen fruit, he adds.
And volume is increasingly important. With the global population steadily climbing, mankind needs all the food it can get.

Cereal crops might survive without bees (they generally rely on wind for seed setting), but a host of other crops are dependent on bees or other insects for pollination. Honeybees are the main pollinators of apple trees and bees in general are pollinators for a third of the fresh UK produce in the supermarkets.
With fewer bees, we could kiss goodbye to our five-a-day. Falling yields of fruit, seeds and nuts could spell disaster – not just in terms of the amount we grow and our ability to feed the world’s growing population, but also for our health.

There is also an immediate commercial imperative, says Nigel Jenner, technical director at Kent fruit grower Norman Collett. “Fruit growers need to be producing 80% plus class one fruit to be making money,” he says.
“A well-pollinated tree would do that without over-relying on pesticides and artificial nutrients. Pushing the number of class one fruits up to 90% would double the profit.”

Grocers as well as growers have understood the need to raise their game. “The work supermarkets and growers are doing in understanding bees better and encouraging their numbers is not a PR exercise but based on serious commercial concerns,” agrees Robin Dean, MD of the Red Beehive Company and the world’s first supermarket beekeeper, with responsibility for Sainsbury’s rooftop bee hotels.

Sainsbury’s lent its support to crop protection company Syngenta’s Operation Bumblebee, which launched in 2005 and distributed pollinator-friendly seed mixes to farmers across the country. “A thousand hectares of wild flower mix were planted across the UK ,” says Syngenta’s James Marshall-Roberts.

Within three years bumblebee populations had increased by 600%, with a twelvefold increase in butterfly numbers and a tenfold increase in other pollinators. The campaign also contributed to the regeneration of the endangered bombus ruderatus bumblebee.

The success of that project led to its extension as Operation Pollinator across 10,000ha of plots in mainland Europe and Britain. The goal is to support the regeneration of a wide range of insects, including the hundreds of less well-known species of solitary bees – which could be a signifi cant move.
“Given the right habitats, they are naturally occurring and don’t rely on introduction, like some bumblebees do, or the same level of management as honeybees,” explains Dean.

Trials conducted by Dean at Norman Collett yielded some startling results. “We isolated two sets of apple blossom earlier in the season,” he says. “In one we netted the flowers so no pollinators could reach them; in the other we encouraged access for solitary bees. There is a 50% reduction in the
amount of fruit in the tree where bees were denied access.”
Separate trials suggest fruit pollinated by solitary bees is firmer and ripens more evenly, allowing synchronised picking, saving time and money. 

In the meantime, the Co-operative Group has banned the use of six neonicotinoid pesticides on its own-label fresh and frozen produce and pledged some £300 ,000 to honeybee research. Trials of wildflower seed mixes are being conducted on Co-op Farms and beekeepers are being invited to establish hives there.

And bees aren’t the only focus. The butterfly is another major pollinator and M&S launched a butterfly conservation scheme in conjunction with the charity Butterfly Conservation earlier this year. The scheme is part of the supermarket’s Plan A sustainability project and included what was billed as the UK’s largest butterfl y count in July.

Duncan Farrington, vice chairman of the British Association of Cold Pressed Oil Producers, will spend this month sowing wild flower seeds around the rapeseed crops on his Northamptonshire farm.

“Good pollination improves the health of an oilseed crop, allowing it to yield more oil,” he explains. “The wild flowers encourage insects such as hoverflies that eat aphids and beetles that eat slugs. They also play a role in controlling damaging weeds, such as black grass.”

Being able to talk to consumers about his and others’ conservation efforts helps drive home the message that while the food chain may be divided over many things, on bees it is united.


The national honeybee swarm is recovering, according to the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA). English hives doubled between 2007 and 2009 to 40,000, taking the number of domestic honeybees to 48bn, although the BBKA estimates that one in five bees did not make it through the harsh winter.

“It is excellent that the concern over honeybee numbers has led to an increase in beekeeping, but I would not yet describe the UK population as healthy,” says Martin Smith, president of the BBKA.
“The priority for us is to ensure that new beekeeper members get the training they require, ensuring they are successful and productive honey producers for many years to come.”

The BBKA has seen its numbers grow by 20% to 18,000 in recent years, reversing a steady, decades-long decline . In response to the surge of aspiring apiarists, the body has increased the number of training courses it offers and is advertising for a beekeeping trainer. The UK only produces 10% of its
honey at present but Smith says there is a growing number making money from their bees.

“There is growth in the number of co-operatives who collect honey from a number of keepers to sell in larger batches to processors,” says Smith. “But I don’t think we will see the growth of very large honey producers.”
Rowse, the UK’s biggest honey company, is looking to tap into this growing supply of homegrown honey and is searching for beekeepers who can supply it.

£200m - The estimated value of honeybees' pollination to British farmers

54% - The decline in honeybee numbers between 1985 and 2005

60% - The decline in bumblebee numbers in past 40 years. Two species extinct since 1975

£750k - The amount raised by LASI for bee research from sponsors including waitrose, Rowse Honey and M&S