Insects and Insecticides

Written evidence submitted by Orchid Apiaries

I have been following the proceedings of the Environmental Audit Committee relating to their investigation of Insects and Insecticides. It is apparent that most of the evidence submitted is based on scientific research, with varied interpretations. Very little evidence has been based on "hands on" field experience.

Honey bee colonies can be regarded as "canaries in the cage", offering a sensitive monitoring system for environmental conditions, due to the widespread and sophisticated foraging behaviour of colony members. With large numbers of colonies under our control we feel qualified to make pertinent observations regarding honey bee colony collapse, and therefore contribute to the debate.

My business, Orchid Apiaries, has experienced large scale honey bee deaths since 2002, last year we had a respite (losses much reduced), although the weather for honey bees was the worst on record. Our bee losses nearly always commence end of May to early June, with bees at some apiaries dying in hundreds of thousands. In addition, new queens, which are required to fly long distances to mating sites, fail to mate, leading to the demise of a proportion of our colonies. These observations are new within the past decade. In earlier times, large scale deaths were extremely rare, and queen mating failures occurred only occasionally. The cost to our business is between £5000 and £10000 per annum in loss of bees and honey crop, which is severely impacting our financial viability.

In the early years of encountering these problems, investigation by government bodies gave no positive outcome in either identifying the cause or finding a solution. We now contrive our own test regimes annually and continue to try and eliminate possible causes.

I believe that while many factors impact honeybee health and viability, the most likely explanation of these observations is that a new environmental factor with significant consequences for bee colony viability has emerged in the last decade. The effect of this factor can be localised and may vary with climatic conditions and bee foraging activity, but affects some localities every season.

These observations are not limited to East Anglia. In recent years a colleague, whose beekeeping business is based in the Midlands, has experienced similar bee losses. We are currently in collaboration, evaluating new science and contriving subsequent field trials. We have considered many potential causes of declining colony health, including Varroa mites and treatment thereof, virus infection and environmental toxins. We believe the latter to be the most likely cause, a prime component being the neonicotinoid class of insecticides, introduced for general agricultural use over the same time scale as increased colony losses. We lack, however, the facilities to test this hypothesis directly. We would encourage an extensive re-evaluation of these products in terms of safety to bees, and in particular regard it as vital that tests are performed at the whole colony level in normal conditions, rather than under the current regime. In passing, we also believe that the ICPBR, currently dominated by representatives of the crop protection industry, should include stakeholders from the beekeeping community.

9 January 2013

Prepared 23rd January 2013