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Defra moves to protect UK honeybees

Consultation first step to concrete strategy

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The combined forces of the Department for Environment, Food And Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Welsh Assembly today announced the first step in formulating a strategy to protect the UK's honeybees - a consultation (pdf) which "sets out a plan for the future direction of work aimed at sustaining the health of honeybees and beekeeping in England and Wales for the next decade".

According to Defra, there are around "44,000 beekeepers in the UK who maintain around 274,000 colonies of honeybees" and the "economic value of crops grown commercially in the UK that benefit from bee pollination is estimated at around £120m-£200m" a year.

Defra identifies some of the myriad threats menacing Britain's apine population, and in turn the crops they pollinate, as American Foulbrood and European Foulbrood (bacterial infections of bee larvae), "varroa mites and associated viruses", while "potential exotic threats include small hive beetle, parasitic brood mites and undesirable species such as the Asian hornet, which prey on colonies".

Defra lays out its stall thus: "The strategy seeks to address the challenges facing beekeepers given their important role as custodians of honeybees. It sets out a plan for the future direction of work aimed at sustaining the health of honeybees and beekeeping in England and Wales for the next decade. It recognises the important roles of various stakeholders in implementing the strategy - Government, individual beekeepers, their associations and others, such as honey importers."

Jeff Rooker, Minister for Sustainable Food and Farming and Animal Health, said: "Honeybees are facing serious threats from a growing number of pests and diseases. It is vital that we do all we can to respond effectively to these threats and to sustain honeybees and beekeeping for today and for future generations.

"The strategy provides direction and focus for Government, beekeepers and other stakeholders working together over the next decade on sustaining honeybees. We are grateful for the constructive engagement with beekeeping associations over recent months to develop the strategy. Once the final strategy is published after consultation, we will need to work with the associations on a suitable implementation plan."

Interestingly, Defra's press release makes no mention* of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which has blighted bee populations worldwide. The UK's apiarists recently demanded £8m for a research project aimed at saving the nation's honeybees from extinction, and specifically cited CCD as a major threat.

Tim Lovett, president of the British Beekeeping Association, said: "Beekeeping is still reeling from the varroa mite, which carries a number of viruses and which devastated thousands of hives across the country when it reached Britain ten years ago. Now there is a real danger that colony collapse disease - which has wiped out 80 per cent of bees in parts of the US - will appear in this country. Unless we develop effective protection, there could then be massive losses of bees across the country."

Defra's consultation runs until 29 August. There are full details here. ®

Bootnote

*The consultation document lists this "significant endemic risk" to honeybees: "Honeybee viruses associated with varroa infestation leading to colony losses. An increase in colony losses has been observed over recent years, mainly due to varroa and viruses, though other as yet undetermined causes could be contributing to losses."

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