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Gov stumps £4.3m bee health funding

Steps up campaign to save UK's hives

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The environment secretary Hilary Benn today announced an extra £4.3m "to safeguard and undertake more research into the health of bees".

The Department for Environment, Food And Rural Affairs (Defra) explains: "Over the last two years Britain's bee colonies have suffered significant losses due to a combination of potential issues including the weather, the varroa mite, and other factors requiring further investigation by researchers."

The cash injection to tackle the crisis faced by Britain's beekeepers follows last year's pledge by Defra to give "higher priority" to probing the bee fatalities which have hit Britain's hives hard.

Among the forces mobilised to tackle the problem was the National Bee Unit (NBU), which will now get £2.3m over the next two years. Defra will also provide £400,000 for "bee health research" forming part of its bee health strategy which encompasses an ongoing consultation (pdf) - a first step towards formulating a long-term strategy to protect the UK's honeybees.

As we've previously reported, Defra avoids making reference to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) - the unexplained disappearance of millions of honeybees which has hit hives across the world - but last year significantly noted that samples of dead bees collected in 2007 "indicated high levels of the parasite Nosema spp coupled with virus (particularly chronic bee paralysis virus)".

In April 2007, US scientists identified the single-celled fungus Nosema ceranae in dead bees from hives in California, leading them to identify it as a possible major contributory factor in CCD. They did, however, describe the findings as "highly preliminary".

Defra, meanwhile, has suggested other factors may too have contributed to the sorry state of UK bees. It explained last year: "The position this year may be different given that the wet weather experienced in summer 2007 meant that bees were confined to their hives for long periods and were therefore unable to forage for sufficient nectar and pollen to sustain them over winter.

"The poor spring we've experienced also extended the bees' confinement. This additional stress is likely to have provided the opportunity for pathogen spread, virus levels to build up and Nosema, where it was present, to have a greater impact."

Speaking today at the Royal Society of Chemistry, Benn said: "Bees are vulnerable to a number of threats. Pests and diseases, when combined with poor summers can leave colonies unable to survive the winter. We must get to grips with this, to see just how serious a problem it is, what the impacts on pollination are, and what we can do in response.

"So today I am announcing an additional £4.3 million of funding, targeted at bee disease surveillance, education and research."

He added: "We must ensure that in meeting demand today we don't destroy our ability to feed ourselves tomorrow. We're trying to find ways of producing more food, for more people, using less energy, less fertiliser and less pesticide, while producing fewer greenhouse gases - and we've got to do all that with limited land and limited water.

"I believe that we have the knowledge and the technology to do this, but the perfect storm of climate change, environmental degradation and water and oil scarcity, threatens our ability to succeed. It is science that will help steer us through that storm."

While apiarists will doubtless welcome the new funding, it's still short of the £8m they last year demanded amid claims that without urgent action, the UK's honeybee population could be wiped out within ten years.

There's more on Defra's bee health strategy here. ®

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