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"Save the Bees" - what does saving the bees look like?

Updated: Jan 4, 2023

Come Spring and Summer when the sun is out and the bees are usually livening up our gardens and landscapes, the ‘Save the bees’ band-wagon will usually appear. It’s good that so many people do care about the bees, but it's important to consider why the bees need saving, and what it is that we need to ‘save the bees’ from. I think terminology is important when discussing this subject and I ask any informed beekeeper, scientist, or farmer who might be reading this post to offer their views on this, especially if I have missed anything vital. So here goes… Due to the quantity of hobbyist beekeepers in the UK and the drive to teach more beekeepers about queen rearing, it is my current understanding that honeybee numbers in the UK are generally stable. I say that based on what I’m hearing as a member of the BBKA. However, it is possible to say that the overall honeybee population is at risk of declining every year. Here’s why:

Imports and Exports The continuous movement of goods (and livestock) in to the UK from Europe and beyond increase the risk of the introduction of new pests and diseases ie: the Asian Hornet, tropilaelaps mite, and the Small hive beetle. These pests are a serious threat to our honeybees and can lead to colony collapse at large scale.

Poisoning from pesticides Farmers of all sizes need to guarantee crops regardless of weather conditions to satisfy human consumption demands, and to make a living. Some substances used on crops are poisonous and can wipe out honeybee colonies. I haven't heard of many poisoning instances occurring near me, but any beekeepers who are affected should check out the Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme:

Poor Bee Diet and Nutrition Like us, bees need a balanced diet. Having a variety of forage within a 5km radius of the colony is important. If habitat is lost, reduced, or compromised in any way, the quality of bee diet is directly affected. The quality of nutrition can affect honeybee immunocompetence.

Global warming and the resulting fluctuations in UK weather A long period of wet weather could mean that honeybees risk using up all their food supplies as they’re taking shelter in the combs. They could starve if they run out of food. Equally, hotter than usual weather could end up destroying local habitats and the plant species on which bees and pollinators rely. Just think back to the wild fires which broke out around the M25 this summer.

Habitat loss The destruction of wild habitats due to the increasing human population and demand for more housing.

FAKE Honey The 3rd most faked foodstuff in the world behind milk and olive oil. Sadly it has been proven to exist on most supermarket shelves. The Honey Authenticity Project can tell you much more about this, the link to which is below. Fake honey producers either dilute the honey or chemically modify the sugars in syrup to make it look like honey. Fake honey depresses the price for real honey making the production of genuine honey unprofitable for beekeepers who are trying to make a living from it. There is a lot on this subject so do read the link:

Intensive beekeeping activities This is a bit of an eye-brow raising point for me to bring up but it’s a good one to talk about. A very high number of managed colonies in one place could end up compromising the health and stability of all colonies in that area, but especially any wild unmanaged honeybee colonies who might be nearby. Too many colonies in one area would mean increased competition for forage, and increased risk of spreading disease. I raise this point after having had a really interesting phone conversation with Dr Olivia Norfolk from Cambridge University (back in Feb 2021) who was investigating the impact of beekeeping on wild honeybee populations in rural Cambridgeshire. Humans are the common denominator in all of the above points. Regardless of whether you want to keep bees or not, there are things that each person can do which can help to decrease the risk of UK honeybee populations falling in to decline. The acts and small changes that you can make (and that I’m aware of), are as follows:

Plant pollinator-friendly flowers, perennials and trees Planting native plants and trees which bloom at different times of the year will offer various food sources to honeybee colonies (both managed and unmanaged) and to other pollinators too.

Keep hedgerows wild Don’t cut them down entirely. The birds will also thank you.

Every flower counts Don’t mow or remove all of the smaller flowers on your grass lawns. They are loved by many pollinators.

Buy your honey from local beekeepers as opposed supermarkets It’s quite easy for people to assume that beekeepers have honey on tap. It isn't the case. Honey harvests are dependent on many factors such as weather, the availability of forage, the health of the colony, the skill of the beekeeper, and colony genetics. Your average local beekeeper may only get 1-2 harvests of honey a year. It could be a modest harvest or it could be a larger-than-last-year-harvest…. whatever it is or isn’t, the honey that is available is truly unique and special. Grab the opportunity to get a taste of what makes up your local environment around you. Is the honey floral? Is it fruity? Ask your beekeeper to tell you about their honey and the forage which they think is influencing its fantastic flavour.

New beekeepers should try to keep things local If you want to have a go at keeping bees, speak to your local beekeepers first and get some hands-on experience with them at your side. If your location is deemed fit to set up an apiary and you make the decision to get your own colony of bees, help to preserve local bee genetics by buying a nucleus colony from a local beekeeper. Buying local bees will also help to minimise spreading disease around the UK. Your local beekeeping association can put you in contact with a local beekeeper if you need help finding one.

Encourage children to get involved Encourage your children to be curious and learn about bees and their contribution to the ecosystem. Training up the next generation of beekeepers is important. What am I doing ? I'm trying to do a variety of things to help preserve the bees and reduce my impact on the natural world. These things include: -Raising my own honeybee queens from my colonies which show best resistance to viruses and diseases. -Learning bee husbandry improvement techniques from those with much more experience. -No longer being in a rush to expand the number of honeybee colonies I manage. -Sharing my passion for bees with others to help educate and inform. -Selling all-natural produce to bring awareness to natural alternatives. -Planting a variety of seasonal native forage for pollinators each year. -Buying local produce when I can (and that includes other beekeeper's honey!) -Growing as much of my own food as the garden allows. -Trading food for food ie: honey for eggs and vegetables. -Recycling and repurposing materials and equipment.

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