The plight of the honey bee has triggered a huge increase in amateur beekeeping over the past decade, with individuals and companies rushing to put hives in their gardens or on city rooftops. But, for the first time, there are signs that the trend may be causing more harm than good.
A huge surge in bee colonies in London in the past few years has created intense competition for nectar and pollen. Honey yields in the capital are considerably lower than in previous years, figures to be published on Tuesday will show, suggesting that bees are struggling to produce enough to sustain their hives because of limited supplies of wildflowers.
The London Beekeepers Association (LBKA) is warning that there could be "too many bees" in the Greater London area for the environment to sustain. One beehive needs 120kg of nectar and 20kg to 30kg of pollen a year to sustain its bees; honey production will decrease if there are not enough pollinator-friendly plants to meet demand.
In 2008 there were 1,617 bee colonies in the capital and surrounding areas, and by this year that had more than doubled to 3,337. Yet at the same time, the average amount of honey produced in hives has slumped. The annual honey survey by the British Beekeepers' Association (BBKA), which collects hive production figures from 75 per cent of beekeepers, reported an average of about 11kg of honey produced per hive in 2010 and 2011. The new figures will show this has fallen dramatically.
While this year's rainy spring and summer are being blamed in part on a reduction in honey yields, the amount in London is said to be lower than the rest of the UK, suggesting another factor has been at work.
Angela Woods, secretary of the LBKA, insisted that the organisation did not want to discourage people from keeping bees, but warned that new hives must be accompanied by extra planting of nectar-rich flowers. The poor honey production suggested that creation of forage for bees had not kept pace with the hundreds of new colonies, she added.
"We are all beekeepers whether you actually have a hive or not," she said. "Plant the right flowers in your garden and the bees will come to you. While the LBKA doesn't want to deter people from getting involved, it must be remembered you'll be taking on a box of 60,000 stinging insects and that bees are classified as livestock and are not pets.
"We do know the benefits of keeping bees are immense and the perfect antidote to stressful city life, especially for those who are interested in reconnecting with nature."
The huge increase in new colonies in London is due in part to the number of firms establishing hives on office roofs as part of their corporate social responsibility commitments.
Ms Woods added: "Private business has a crucial role to play with the resources they have. Some linking beekeeping with social enterprise, like the Honey Club, or with political purpose, like the Neal's Yard Remedies Bee Lovely campaign to stop pesticide use are the mavericks who are getting it right.
"Through 2013, the LBKA will be reaching out to private business to help fund London-wide forage projects which we see as the way to go." Both the LBKA and BBKA run training courses for new amateur apiarists.
Reports of colony collapse disorder, by which entire hives of bees are wiped out, triggered a renewed interest in beekeeping from the middle of the last decade. But while the disorder has been rife in the United States and other parts of Europe, there is little evidence to suggest it has affected bees in Britain. Bee populations in the UK are more likely to be affected by rainy summers and deformed wing virus, transmitted by the parasitic varroa mite. The Government's National Bee Unit is also investigating how some pesticides have caused colony loss.
A Friends of the Earth survey by Mori last week showed that nine out of 10 people could not identify honey bees next to other insects. But it also showed 55 per cent were likely to put in pollinator-friendly plants.