Honey bee virus threatens fruit orchards

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The Independent Online
BRITISH BEEKEEPERS are under increasing financial pressure, as a devastating mite which has almost wiped out the honey bee in the wild is now threatening fruit crops across the country.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is funding a pounds 1.3m investigation into the rampaging Varroa jacobsoni mite and is exploring ways of reviving the industry. The havoc caused by the mite has serious implications for the British consumer, with fears it may lead to the importation of more GM soya as crops that rely on the bee for pollination also wither.

Varroa jacobsoni thrives by passing viruses from bee to bee and weakening their immune systems. The mite can wipe out a colony of 50,000 bees inside three years.

The decline of beekeeping now may jeopardise Britain's fruit orchards, because the bee pollinates a host of trees and wild flowers, including blackberries, strawberries, pears, cherries and oilseed rape. "The environmental impact of the bee is far greater than any commercial interest of bee farmers," said Brian Stenhouse, general secretary of the Bee Farmers Association.

Membership of the British Beekeeping Association - which represents the small-scale and part-time beekeepers who own 99 per cent of the country's hives and produce 95 per cent of the honey - has dropped from 12,710 to 9,824 in just five years.

Many part-time beekeepers cannot afford the time and cost required to treat their hives for Varroa. An average hive produces 30lbs of honey a year, which is worth about pounds 30, and it can cost pounds 10 to treat a hive, reducing the return by 33 per cent. "You have to spend time and money on Varroa and that takes away from the fun and recreation of the pastime for many people and they're just giving up," said Ged Marshall, who runs a bee farm at Steeple Claydon in Buckinghamshire.

Beekeeping in Britain tends to operate at the luxury end of the market. Of the 20,000 tonnes of honey eaten in the UK every year, only 2,000 tonnes are made here, produced from around 100,000 hives. Adrian Waring, general secretary of the British Beekeeping Association, believes the industry will have to slim down to survive. "What we are going to see is a smaller number of beekeepers but they will operate on a larger scale," he said.