In top-to-toe white outfits with distinctive veiled hoods, they do not look like the usual kind of protesters to march on Downing Street.
But today Britain's beekeepers will stride down Whitehall to demand government action to halt the alarming decline in honey bee numbers seen over the last year.
Two billion bees – one in three of Britain's honey bee colonies – have been lost over the past 12 months, in the worst losses ever seen in the UK. Yet the causes are unclear, and the apiarists fear there is nothing to prevent a similar devastation this winter – but the Government, they say, is letting it happen.
Hundreds of members of the British Beekeepers' Association (BBKA) from all over the country will deliver a petition to No 10 signed by more than 140,000 members of the public, calling for an immediate increase in research funding – from what the BBKA terms the "paltry" £200,000 currently spent annually on bee health research, to £1.6m annually for the next five years.
The association claims that pollination by bees would be worth £825m to the agricultural economy over the same period, and says they are asking for less than 1 per cent of that. But the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says that it cannot afford it.
"The increased funding we are asking for is a drop in the ocean compared to the billions of pounds the government has found for bank bailouts," said Tim Lovett, the BBKA president. "Bees are probably one of the most economically useful creatures on earth, pollinating a third of all we eat. They provide more than 50 per cent of pollination of wild plants on which birds and mammals depend. We must identify what is killing them, and that means research."
Paul Temple, vice-president of the National Farmers' Union, said honey bees were an underpinning component of the British countryside – "whether it's heather moorland, a hedgerow, an orchard or a field of beans."
He said: "Our bee farmers and beekeepers are the custodians of every single honey bee in our countryside, and they are facing devastating bee health problems. To solve these problems we need comprehensive and co-ordinated research to be undertaken urgently. And one thing is clear, current levels of government funding are nowhere near enough to support such research."
Rowse Honey, the UK's leading honey company, warns that English beekeepers' honey will run out in the supermarkets by Christmas, and has committed £100,000 to support research into bee health at Sussex University.
Other industry groups are expected to help, but the BBKA says this does not relieve the Government of its responsibility to provide research funding.
The cause of the enormous losses of the last year is thought to be a combination of disease, linked to a particularly virulent hive pest, the varroa mite, and the appalling weather of the last two summers, which has also hit other insects hard. But the exact nature of the disease varies between hives, and the beekeepers feel that research to understand the processes by which colonies are lost is urgent and essential.
"Without beekeepers to look after them there would be no honey bees in the UK," Mr Lovett said. "Despite the best efforts of our members, bees are suffering as the varroa mites who weaken colonies and spread viruses are becoming resistant to treatments. This is all on top of the bad weather, especially the wet summers, over which we have no control. There is currently no 'magic bullet' for controlling varroa. We must have more research."
In the UK there are about 44,000 beekeepers who manage about 274,000 hives, which produce 6,000 tonnes of honey a year. The varroa mite reached the UK in 1992 and now infests 95 per cent of hives. Untreated colonies die in three to four years.
The apiarist: 'You expect losses, but nothing like this'
Robin Dartington has kept bees for 45 years and is used to losses in the winter but not on the scale he has experienced over the past year. He has lost nine of his 20 colonies in Hitchin, Hertfordshire (a colony is the swarm of bees in a hive). "You might expect losses of perhaps 10 per cent, but nothing like this," he said. "It's very depressing."The National Bee Unit found his bees had died from a combination of a virus associated with the varroa mite and a stomach disorder. "We need more research into what the diseases are, which are becoming endemic and in what combinations."