Fruit crop risk as bee colonies collapse

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The Independent Online
Britain's summer fruit crops are under threat following the collapse of bee colonies in the south of England which have been hit by a fatal mite infection.

Farmers in Kent, where much of the country's crop of strawberries, apples, pears and plums is grown, may face depleted fruit stocks this year because there are not enough bees to pollinate their crops.

The varroa, a destructive mite infection, has been in Britain for the past four years. Only five counties in England, and all of Scotland, have so far escaped infection.

John Cossburn, chairman of the Bee Farmers Association, said some farmers in the south have seen complete colony collapse. "The first five years of this infection is hell. We are never going to eradicate the mite but we hope a programme of treatment will control the infection," he said.

Varroa mites destroy bees by infiltrating hives and infecting pupating bees. If the hive is not wiped out, the hatching pupae are left weakened and often deformed leaving them open to attacks by wasps and wax moths.

Mr Cossburn said: "We are hoping that fruit crops won't be damaged in the south. In the spring we will be searching for new colonies of bees to contract to the places that have been the worst hit."

With the treatment of varroa only partially effective and the failure of Government restrictions to stop the movements of infected colonies, the disease is virtually impossible to contain.

Alan Johnson, chairman of the National Bee Keeping Association, said the bee population has suffered a 30 per cent loss over the past year.

"There is no doubt that some of the smaller fruit farmers could go to the wall, because there are not enough bees to pollinate their crops," he said.

"But we hope to keep the bee population going by breeding more bees to put back into the environment."