Hope for the Honey Bee?

You may have noticed at your local common a place for wild flowers, attracting a mobile constellation of bees, butterflies, and a host of minibeasts. Honey bees mean different things to each of us: an excuse to reminisce on childhood crayoning, the producer of that delicious syrup we all enjoy as honey, or a symbol of order and harmony in nature. However, they also serve a critical environmental role as a major fruit and vegetable pollinator. In these days of economic and political uncertainty this may not be foremost in policy makers minds, however, bees are vital for our survival and are a living indicator of the health of our environment. In this post, Gino Abdul-Jabbar suggests with honey bees under threat that we need to direct our individual attention and garner collective policy support for the plight of the humble honey bee.

Honey Bees have been kept since the beginning of civilisation. Today honey bees are under threat, and beekeepers find themselves fighting a war on three fronts: the threat of climate change; new diseases and pests; and a decrease in plant biodiversity. In this short blog I hope to outline the main challenges posed by each to honey bees and later suggest possible actions to help mitigate the threats faced by honey bees.  

Climate change is altering local weather patterns [1] and increasing the frequency of extreme weather, Bees may be affected through restrictions on flying at key times of the year, by for example heavy rain or strong winds during the time for mating flights. This is likely to decrease the chance of successful mating of queen bees. The early or late opening of flowers due to climate change may result in periods with little forage for colonies.  Milder winters have also been speculated to interfere with the honey bee’s natural hibernation pattern, resulting in an increase in food consumption and potentially one of the many reasons behind colony starvation over winter.

New diseases and pests have had a significant effect, in particular the discovery of the Varroa mite in England in 1992 [2] and its subsequent spread across the majority of the UK where it has devastated honey bee colonies and resulted in big changes in beekeeping practices . The mite originates from Asia, where its normal host, the Asian honey bee has adapted to live with the parasitic mite. Unfortunately, the European honey bee does not poses an effective defence mechanism, and so their colonies are particularly vulnerable out with the service of beekeepers who manage Varroa using the guidelines of an integrated pest control system (A plan developed to reduce varroa mite population through medical treatments, good hygiene & husbandry practices, and regular management [2]) to keep the mite population low enough for colonies to survive. These observations in managed bee colonies makes us particularly concerned about the welfare of wild honey bees. Who live outside the management system of beekeepers and thus may be struggling to survive in a new reality, living with Varroa.

A decrease in biodiversity [1] has additionally made it increasingly difficult for honey bees to have food security. A lack of diversity in flowering plant species may lead to periods of the year where there are no flowers available for bees to forage nectar and pollen. This has been particularly pronounced in the countryside where changes in farming practices towards larger plots containing few plant species, and a reduction in untended ground where wild flowers may grow, leads in the best scenario to lots of flower forge being available for bees when crops are flowering, and very little outside of these times, potentially  leading to starvation. Under these conditions bees will travel further to find food, far away from the hive. However, in doing so bees consume more energy in flight, and so the net amount of food returned to the hive is not as profitable as for food sources local to the hive.     

With this list of significant threats it may appear that the future for the honey bee is bleak. However, there are a number of pragmatic suggestions potentially available (some already form parts of government strategies [3])  which may help to mitigate these pressures on honey bees:

  1. supporting honey bees by planting diverse flowering plant species to provide bees with food throughout the year;

  2. policies that support farmers and other countryside stakeholders to increase plant biodiversity, supporting local beekeepers to site beehives on unused secure grounds on private or public land (unlike allotments or community gardens that require good top soil, and generally a sizable patch of land, bee hives do not require much space, and are easily sited on concrete);

  3. increasing grants for scientists and engineers to work on developing solutions for honey bees and beekeepers;

  4. support education schemes on the importance of bees and biodiversity in the public sphere;

  5. and finally supporting local and national beekeeping organisations.

By addressing some of the underlying cause stressing honey bees we can begin to develop a healthy future for honey bees.  



[1]         M. Laurent, P. Hendrikx, M. Ribiere-Chabert, M. Chauzat; A pan-European epidemiological study on honeybee colony losses 2012-2014, Version 2, (13/01/16), EPILOBEE consortium, European Union Reference Laboratory for honeybee health


[2]         Managing Varroa, National Bee Unit, Animal & Plant Health Agency,

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, UK Government, (2017), http://www.nationalbeeunit.com/downloadDocument.cfm?id=16

 [3]         The Honey Bee Health Strategy, The Scottish Government, June 2010