Decline of the Honey Bee.

Over-exploitation and historical misplaced kindness are responsible for the decline of the honey bee in the Western World.

As a one-time beekeeper, lifelong nature lover and the author of a number of wild life books, I point a finger at the bee-keeping industry itself as being primarily responsible for the calamitous decline of the honey bee in North America and the U.K.

For centuries, up until the late 1800s, honey bees were kept in hives known as skeps, dome-shaped structures made from coils of straw, so tightly woven and wound that they were completely weatherproof, cool in summer and warm in winter.

Each autumn the beekeeper would select the hives that were to be harvested, probably some one-third or a half of his stock, much as a livestock farmer would select a percentage of his cattle or sheep for slaughter to provide food for winter. Both farmer and beekeeper would retain their best and strongest beasts or hives to reproduce during the following year.

All the inhabitants of the condemned hives, both queens, drones and workers, were then suffocated to death with smoke and the entire stock of honeycombs removed and the empty skeps burnt. The remaining hives, full of strong healthy bees, containing enough honey to sustain the colony through the winter, were left alone and, in May of the following year, the colony would reproduce itself by sending out a large swarm of bees, led by the old queen, to colonise a new skep provided by the beekeeper nearby. A new young queen would rebuild the old colony with the remaining workers.

After the autumn harvest, the contents of the honeycombs from the slaughtered colonies , both honey and all the immature grubs which would otherwise have hatched in the early spring, were separated out, the honey filtered and put into jars and the grubs fed to the chickens.

In the late 1800s someone, probably upset at having to brutally destroy up to half of their stock, invented the sectional hive as we know it today.

The lower half of this hive consists of a brood chamber, the upper part being reserved for honey storage. A metal screen separates the two sections with holes in it large enough for the worker bees to pass though and store the honey, but small enough to prevent the bigger queen from laying eggs in the honey-storage area. The perceived advantage of this system was that the colony no longer had to be murdered to recover the honey. It was and still is, a simple matter to remove the top section each year and take away the honey-filled combs, leaving the brood chambers undisturbed to hatch out the following spring.

Of course the bees and the grubs now needed feeding since the beekeeper had taken the honey for his own use and for sale.

When I was a boy in the 1950s and helped my father with his bees on the farm, we were (as registered beekeepers,) allowed an amount of sugar to replace the honey taken in addition to our personal rations. (Food rationing regulations were still in place then.) This refined, granulated white sugar was dissolved in water and the syrup fed to the bees through a special device inside the top of the hive.

The honey, which has been promoted for centuries as ‘health-giving’ and ‘full of natural goodness’, was sold by my mother from her stall in Abergavenny market. Everybody was happy. The customers loved the locally produced honey, my mother got income to feed her family, no bees were killed and the plants were pollinated. Everything in the garden was lovely – or was it?

This ‘kindly to bees’ system has been the norm for over a century, yet now the bees are succumbing to a range of diseases to which they appear to have little resistance as well as to the parasitic varroa mites which suck the body fluids from the bees.

If we go back to the comparison with the livestock farmer and were to invent a management system where most of the blood was drained from every sheep and cow every year to avoid having to kill them, and using that blood to provide food for humans, how healthy and disease-resistant would the stock be after a hundred years of that happening? Any livestock or plant breeder will tell you that in our modern agricultural system where natural ‘survival of the fittest’ no longer applies, the weakest must be culled and only the strongest bred from to avoid stock deterioration.

Beekeepers will tell you that they supplement the sugar solution with formulated bee-food to boost the nutritional value of the syrup but that won’t replace the essential disease-preventing content of the honey which bees have evolved over millions, if not billions, of years to keep the bees healthy and able to resist the attacks of such parasites as the varroa mite and the diseases they carry.

It is our misplaced kindness which is the cause of the decline of the vital bee population!

Can it be reversed? The only way I can see this happening is to ban the harvesting of honey in the ‘civilised world’ for at least a decade (yes, professional bee keepers would need to be compensated) whilst queens are imported from places like Africa, where traditional ‘cruel’ systems are still practiced.  Over such a period their offspring, carrying the genes of the new strong disease-resistant queens, would rebuild the colonies and have a chance to resist the problems that are now decimating our bees.

Should we then have to go back to the annual ‘slaughter of the innocents’? Perhaps during that time we may be able to find an alternative system that doesn’t do more harm than good. If we continue with the ‘non-culling’ system, we will certainly have to severely limit the percentage of the honey crop taken each year and leave the bees with enough of their own ‘health giving’ food to retain their vigour and resistance to disease.

It is not just honey supplies that are at risk if our bees die out. Many farmers and crop growers rate the bees’ pollinating service way above their value to humanity as mere providers of a tasty spread on your toast at breakfast time.

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