A sting in the tale: 'secret deal' splits country's top beekeepers

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For generations, beekeeping has been one of the most genteel of pastimes - a world of flower meadows, village fêtes and white-veiled enthusiasts pottering around, puffing smoke into hives.

For generations, beekeeping has been one of the most genteel of pastimes - a world of flower meadows, village fêtes and white-veiled enthusiasts pottering around, puffing smoke into hives.

No longer. A bitter dispute is tearing the British beekeeping world in two. There has been dark talk of secret deals with big business, pickets of meetings, open rebellions by infuriated bee- keepers and now a plot to form a breakaway association.

The controversy centres on a series of deals agreed behind closed doors between the country's largest amateur body, the British Beekeepers' Association (BBKA), and four of the world's largest agro-chemicals companies.

To the dismay of many beekeepers, the BBKA has agreed to sponsor several pesticides that can be lethal to bees. Firms such as Syngenta, FMC, Bayer and BASF now boast they are endorsed as "bee friendly" by the BBKA. In return, the association has earned tens of thousands of pounds, funding a Syngenta-sponsored beekeeping book for schools, a beekeeping display, and roof repairs to the BBKA's Warwickshire headquarters.

According to the rebels, these are deals with the devil. Furious at the association's decision to make them without consulting its members, they allege these pesticides are to blame for wiping out hives.

The Pesticides Safety Directorate (PSD), the official government agency, recorded 372 suspicious poisonings of honey bees, some involving entire hives of thousands, between 1994 and 2003, with pesticides to blame in more than 120 cases. And, critics claim, these figures disguise the true number of poisonings, since many others go unnoticed and unreported.

George Eames, secretary of the Durham Beekeepers' Association, said he first learnt of the sponsorship deal when it appeared in the BBKA accounts two years ago. "We don't think we should be sponsoring pesticides. It's not ethically right that we should be receiving money from these multinationals, because it goes hand in hand with GM technology."

Glyn Davies, the BBKA's president, defended the deals and insisted they had gained valuable influence with the pesticides industry by taking up the sponsorship. The products it endorsed were selected by the BBKA because they were relatively "benign" if properly used.

"It's not that they're non-toxic. Of course they're toxic to bees. What matters is the formulation, the spraying techniques, and the time of spraying, all these highly technical issues which in the end result in virtually zero hive deaths," he said.

He insisted no honey bees had been killed by the pesticides endorsed. ButThe Independent on Sunday has found that the PSD has blamed the same types of pesticide for a number of the 120 proven bee poisoning cases.

Mr Davies added: "This relationship with the agro-chemical companies will benefit us financially, there's no doubt about it. But I don't think this is immoral because we have a valid opinion to give, and in our society opinions are worth money."

More than a dozen of the BBKA's local associations rebelled earlier this year, demanding it scrap sponsorship deals, but the motion was defeated by 30 votes to 13. Now several rebel groups are talking to an independent group, the Mid Bucks Beekeepers' Association, about setting up a rival body. Peter Smith, vice president of the Mid Bucks group, said: "A lot of people are against pesticides, and the way this was done. I feel we need another, good strong national organisation."

Their campaign is being supported by the environmental group Pesticides Action Network. Alison Craig, its co-ordinator, said it was "completely and utterly absurd" for Mr Davies to claim the association now had any real influence over the industry. "Its whole motivation is to sell as much of their product as they can.

"If the BBKA wanted to get close to any industry, it should be the farmers and sprayers by asking for a routine system where every spraying is notified in advance.

"The BBKA is being used by the pesticides industry. They've totally lost their credibility by doing this. They should be the protectors of bees, but instead, they're selling them down the river."

SWEET TALK

* Europeans have kept honey bees for millennia. The hardy native black bee, Apis mellifera mellifera, is still the most common in Britain, but many breeders like the more docile Italian variety.

* A typical hive in summer has about 60,000 honey bees, including one queen, 250 drones, 20,000 worker bees and 40,000 house bees. One hive can produce up to 100lb of surplus honey.

* A worker bee will live for six to eight weeks, foraging for three weeks for pollen, nectar and water.

* For each pound of honey, a bee can fly the equivalent of twice round the world, making 500 trips, to 10,000 flowers, within four miles of the hive.

* Bees use honey mainly to fuel their wing muscles and feed the hive. Flying at up to 22mph, fuel consumption is 7 million miles per gallon.

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