Bees In Crisis

An interview with Jane Moseley of the British Beekeepers Association

It’s easy to forget that the fruit and vegetables we find on our plates rely on the humble honeybee. Increasingly under threat from both natural and man made enemies, honey bees are kept under the watchful eye of beekeepers across the country.
"Human beings have fabricated the illusion that in the 21st century they have the technological prowess to be independent of nature. Bees underline the reality that we are more, not less, dependent on nature’s services in a world of close to 7 billion people"
Achim Steiner, Executive Director UN Environment Programme (UNEP)
We spoke to Jane Moseley of the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) to discover why bees are so vital – and how changes in our patterns of behaviour threaten their existence.

Honey Bees are threatened by many diseases, predators and parasites which are all spreading rapidly due to changing patterns in globalisation and world trade –  in the winter of 2012/13, honey bee colonies in England alone declined by a crippling 34%.
Photo: honeybee hairs. John Kimbler/Dalantech

The BBKA has noticed a real effect in recent years. Jane says, “Before you could keep a colony at the bottom of your garden and just let the bees get on with it, but then we noticed that numbers of bees were rapidly declining. This is largely due to the Varroa destructor mite which weakened the bees, and meant there had to be changes in the way that bees were kept. A lot of people gave up beekeeping when they lost their colonies. They had to administer medicine and constantly monitor them, and as a result numbers of beekeepers dropped to only 8000 in the early 2000s.”

Since then, organisations like the BBKA have continues to work hard to raise awareness of the threats to bees, and encourage people to take up the craft of beekeeping. Through the efforts of organisations like the BBKA but honeybees still face severe challenges.

We asked Jane why honeybees are so important to us. She said, “Humans have had a relationship with honeybees since the age of cavemen – if you go back through history and look at where we’ve got light [using wax], where we’ve got sugars [eating honey] – they’ve all come from honeybees. They are the only insects to produce food that we eat and they’re the only bees that we can manage. We can move them from one place to another because above all they can provide pollination services on a scale like no other insect.
Photo: moving micro stripes. Jason Levesque on Flickr

“We used to be encouraged to have ‘five a day’, now it’s seven, but without pollinators like the honeybee, we would have many fewer fruit and vegetables. Everything that flowers requires pollination. Without pollination, we would have less food, and our variety reduced, relying predominantly on wind pollinated plants.”

Ironically, though bees are vital to modern day farming, some current farming practices can be detrimental to honeybees and other pollinators. Jane says, “In rural environments hedgerows have been removed making farms and fields much bigger, stripping out natural vegetation and forage that would have been there providing habitats for insects, birds and mammals alike. We need to put these things back in to sustain our wildlife. Our considerations of what farmers are doing are vital- one of our main concerns at the moment is the harmful effects of some sprays that are being used.”

The urban honeybee faces different considerations. “In an urban environment you might have limited space but you will often have a diversity of forage – botanical, market and back gardens in urban conurbation or tree-lined streets like in Ealing designed in the 1930s or earlier. Town planners and developers need to be aware of what they’re planting, change their planting regimes to provide flowering trees which are good for forage, unlike planting London Planes for example, and reduce the use of pesticides” says Jane. Adopting these practices will make it easier for the bees to survive.
Photo: pumpkin pollen dots. John Kimbler/Dalantech

It would seem that modern day life isn’t evolving to consider the honeybees, despite our reliance on them. But just small changes, that we as individuals can make, could help break the declining patterns of honeybees.

Jane says, “I have a philosophy: not everybody needs to become a beekeeper to become a keeper of the bees. To be a keeper of the bees we just need to plant flowers – those that are simple open flowers that are in bloom February to September-October time. If we could take that approach we would have diversity of habitats and forage. By planting for honey bees you plant for everyone, bumblebees butterflies, beetles… and in the changing climate this is vital, where we can’t rely on the seasonal changes to encourage these plants”.

"Not everybody needs to become a beekeeper to become a keeper of the bees"
Jane Moseley, British Beekeepers Association
Raising our awareness of our impact on bees, and crucially, grasping what our lives would be like without them is important in ensuring their survival. We all need to change our patterns of behaviour – on an individual level, we can encourage new environments for the bees. On a larger scale, we can urge businesses and governments to consider the harmful impact industry is having on creatures so essential to our existence.

There are currently 24,500 members of the British Beekeepers Association. Founded in 1874 the BBKA provides education and resources to enhance the craft and improve beekeeping skills and to raise awareness of the importance of honey bees and their role in the environment.

Become a Friend of the Honeybee today. Support our honeybees, learn more about ways in which we can encourage their numbers, and receive bee-friendly seeds and garden guides.