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Bumbling beekeepers breeding mite plague

``And is there honey still for tea?'' Perhaps not, in a few years - because many of Britain's beekeepers are failing to take a lethal parasite seriously.

Yesterday the largest organisation representing the nation's apiarists launched a stinging attack, saying there were far too many elderly, over-individualistic and out-of-touch beekeepers letting the varroa run rife.

Alan Johnson, chairman of the British Beekeepers' Association, launching the first National Varroa Week yesterday, said: ``Either they should join us and treat this threat seriously, or get out of beekeeping.''

The disease arrived in Britain in 1992, having already spread through Europe. First diagnosed in Devon, it has moved northwards through England and Wales and is now at the Scottish border. The parasite is a mite, a pin-head sized, ovoid creature with stubby legs related to spiders and scorpions. It sucks body fluids from the developing grubs, leaving the adults to become weakened and spreading viral diseases between bees.

Even the hive at London Zoo in Regent's Park, where the awareness week was launched yesterday, has the parasite - but it has been treated and is under control.

Once the mite builds up a large population it can wipe out a hive. The surviving adults then abandon ship and fly off carrying mites which can infect other colonies.

More than honey is at stake, since both wild and kept honeybees are among the most important pollinators of crops and wildflowers.

Mr Johnson said that when the disease was raging through Hampshire around 18 months ago nearly three-quarters of all colonies were lost. Local growers of strawberries, raspberries and apples and pears noticed a distinct decline in their crop.

Only one anti-varroa veterinary product is licensed by the government for use in Britain. Not surprisingly its manufacturer, Bayer, was keen to promote the awareness week yesterday.

The treatment consists of plastic strips impregnated with a pesticide hung in the hive which wipes out the mite but not the bee. The association wants its members to use the product, strictly according to instructions, in order to minimise the parasite's spread.

But most of the nation's 35,000 beekeepers, who mostly do it as a hobby, do not belong and many are elderly. In Britain 4,000 bee-keepers have notified the government of infection so far.