Insects and Insecticides

Written evidence submitted by Bedfordshire Beekeepers Association

1. Summary

· Our deep concern for the plight of honeybees and other pollinating insects

· Loss and improvement of habitat

· Possible serious dangers of insecticides: research claims and controversy

· Need for decisive evidence and robust scientific research to clarify the situation

· The threat of varroa

· Recap of the history and nature of varroa

· Attempts to contain varroa and their limitations

· Alternative treatments: a call for research into a biological control.

2. Bee Health - the Situation Overall

2.1 Media accounts of the imminent death of the honey bee as a species are probably exaggerated, but nevertheless we are right to be very concerned about the health and wellbeing of honey bees, even if this has not reached the proportions of the phenomenon of sudden, mysterious loss of many hives in the United States that has been termed Colony Collapse Disorder. Over the last forty years our experience "on the ground" is that beekeeping has become far more difficult and uncertain, certainly requiring ever higher levels of skills and attention.

2.2 From our contacts with members of our association and others, we estimate that winter colony losses in our county now run at around 20% or higher whereas historically they were typically 5-10%. This is higher than some other estimates quoted by Defra in a recent letter.

2.3 We should also be extremely concerned about the state of other pollinating insects, which are in serious, long-term decline, and the resultant threat to agricultural production and to the well-being of the countryside that we rightly treasure.

2.4 Loss of a varied natural habitat – both the flowers and nesting sites - is certainly one cause of the problems with all types of bee. It is very important that farmers do all that is possible to restore a varied landscape, rich in trees and flowering plants, and possible nesting locations, such as through higher level environmental stewardship schemes. Copious and varied sources of pollen, including early and late in the annual cycle, are now recognised to be very important for the health of bees. Urban landscapes are clearly also very important as islands of plenty for bees and other wildlife, and the public seems very receptive to messages about planting flowers that provide nectar and pollen – something to encourage as strongly as possible in promoting biodiversity.

2.5 Another source of problems is likely to be chemical sprays, perhaps in "cocktail" combinations. There is now a considerable body of research that suggests that there might be cause for great concern, even though it is contested by the giant agro-chemical firms and perhaps by scientific advisers in the UK. The anxiety is that bees may be adversely affected at sub-lethal levels, particularly by neonicotinoids used as pesticides since the early 1990s which interfere with the nervous system of insects.

2.6 An important recent study by a team led by Professor Dave Goulson at Stirling University has rightly received much attention. It shows that neonicotinoids at quite low levels can seriously harm the development of bumblebees: "Treated colonies had a significantly reduced growth rate and suffered an 85% reduction in production of new queens compared with control colonies" (Abstract in Science 20 April 2012. The speculation that neonicotinoids "may be having a considerable negative impact on wild bumble bee populations across the developed world" could obviously be extended to honeybees, as well as a wide spectrum of other pollinators. Other research in France has suggested that the homing systems of honey bees can be disrupted so that they fail to return to the hive.

2.7 Some other European countries, notably France, have suspended forms of neonicotinoids. We sense from our contacts that scientists believe that there may be a very serious issue to be addressed. As an Association that actively supports scientific research we certainly argue that it is important to press ahead with further detailed, in-depth studies to cast much-needed light on the matter. The issues are potentially huge in their implications for environment and agriculture in general, as well as for specifically honeybees and other key pollinators.

2.8 We very much welcome the inquiry instigated by the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee in its attempts to establish the truth of the situation.

3. The story of varroa and our attempts to contain it

3.1 For honey bees, varroa remains a huge threat, and we ask the committee also to bear this in mind, assessing the situation holistically.

3.2 The varroa mite has spread round almost the whole world. It is a massively destructive parasite that moved, though human intervention, from another species of bee in the Far East to our honey bees. It lives by sucking out the life blood, the hemolymph, of the bee, introducing viruses in the process - much like human drug addicts become infected by sharing contaminated needles. Varroa was first located in the south west of England in 1992, and since that time has spread throughout the mainland.

3.3 Beekeepers initially used pyrethroid strips to control the mite with a knock down rate of 99%. However, the surviving one percent managed to breed, and over the years the knockdown rate dropped off. The strips are no longer used as the mite has developed immunity to them. We are left with products that have a far lower mite kill. Apiguard, related to the oil extracted from the thyme plant, is applied after the honey has been taken off. It is only effective in warmer weather and so its application window is quite small, with a knockdown of probably only about 80%. Some beekeepers use oxalic acid in sugar syrup in midwinter but this is not licensed for use by the VMD. An effective but controversial treatment available on the continent (Apivar, organophosphate-based) is not licensed for use in the UK and therefore not available to us. Beekeepers can also manipulate their colonies using so-called bio-technical methods, but these are very labour-intensive, often with a cost to the bees. Whether bees can come to develop natural immunity to varroa remains very uncertain, though there is great interest in this possibility.

3.4 Where we are with varroa now

Varroa is the number one problem that beekeepers face these days, as recent but as yet unpublished scientific research has help to confirm. Within the last few months Dr Stephen Martin at Sheffield University has published research showing that the combination of varroa and deformed wing virus (DWV) can cause a colony to die out quickly. There are many known bee viruses but DWV has the ability to replicate within the mite thereby making it more lethal than other viruses.

3.5 As noted earlier, keeping our bees alive has become much more difficult. These losses can be made up during the following season but at the expense of honey production and pollination. A threat of more catastrophic losses, perhaps triggered by harsh weather conditions such as we have experienced in much of the UK this spring and summer, still hangs over us.

3.6 Possible Fungal treatments

Several years ago scientists at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden identified two fungi, from around 80, that kill the mite in laboratory conditions but not bees. Unfortunately this project was cancelled before field trials could take place and the world-class lead researcher was made redundant. The project probably needed another two to three years to complete with the hope that it would be effective in working hives.

3.7 Another project is due to start this autumn with Dr Alan Bowman at Aberdeen University using RNA interference. This will take several years to complete and there is no guarantee that it will work. Past experience has shown that using a single treatment for varroa is a risky strategy. Just as the mite has already developed resistance to pyrethroids, so there is the potential for it develop resistance to further specific treatments. If beekeepers have at least two effective treatments they could be alternated and thereby reduce the resistance risk.

3.8 Research councils are not interested in funding the fungi trials because the basic research has already been carried out. So beekeepers are in the position of trying to keep their bees alive with treatments that are not sufficiently effective or legal.

3.9 Our proposal

Finding other more effective ways to combat varroa remains a huge challenge, with the answers most likely to come from scientific research, as with the vexed question of neonicotinoids. The UK has a hugely impressive track record of research into honey bees, notably at Rothamsted, the oldest agricultural research station in the world. Our proposal is that ways should be found to pursue new solutions, including the possibility of fungal treatments. This could be done through public funding, or possibly by grants from industry, or through a combination of these or other sources.

1 November 2012

Prepared 19th November 2012