Thursday, April 04, 2019

Defending Britain Against the Asian Hornet

Vespa velutina, the Asian Yellow-Legged Hornet, is an invasive, non-native species, originating from China, that arrived in France in 2004. It spread rapidly and is now established throughout France, Belgium, northern Spain and Portugal, as well as parts of Italy. It a highly effective predator of insects, including honey bees and other beneficial species. Reports from France say that some beekeepers are losing up to 50% of their hives each year, and wild bees and other insects are also being predated in large numbers, with obvious implications for native insectivorous species, such as birds and bats.

In France, as many as 10 nests of V. velutina have been found within a radius of just 600 metres. It is a highly persistent hunter and one of the most adept at catching bees on the wing. It is also likely to cause significant losses to other native insect species, with serious implications for bird populations, already in decline.

All the predictions were that the Asian hornet would make its first appearance in Britain somewhere along the south coast, but in fact it was found far from the south coast or any obvious route of entry. This shows that we cannot take for granted how or where it will try to establish itself.

Prior to 2018, the Asian hornet was found and positively identified (and nests subsequently destroyed) in two locations in Britain: Gloucestershire in 2016 and most recently in North Devon in 2017. During 2018, there were 13 positive sightings, as far apart as Lancashire and Kent and six nests were destroyed. There have been a few other, isolated cases of individual specimens being found. It’s pathway into the country remains unknown, but has clearly not followed predicted trajectories.

As of April 2019, we await the first reports, at the time when any surviving queens will be building their primary nests.

It is known that V. velutina can fly greater distances than the minimum 38km across the English Channel.

Other possible means of entry include:
  1. Imports of timber and bark may conceal fertilized queens
  2. Imports of pottery, especially for the horticulture trade (this is believed to have been its route into France)
  3. Imports of soil, compost and potted plants
  4. Imports of fruit
  5. Imports of bees
  6. Fertilised queens, ready for hibernation, may take refuge in caravans, camper vans, trucks and cars travelling from continental Europe back to the UK, especially in September and October.

Given the rapidity of its spread throughout France, which has more than twice the land area of Britain, once established here it is likely to become widespread and naturalised within a few years. Our climate is unlikely to cause it any significant difficulties, since we are in a similar temperature zone to that of its origins in China.

The Asian hornet is a very real and present danger, not only to British honeybees, but to other bee species, butterflies, moths and more or less all other insects, with implications for the pollination of flowering crops and wild flowers and for all species that depend on insects for food, especially insectivorous birds and bats.

If we do nothing, then sooner rather than later, the Asian hornet will become established in Britain. Further incursions are extremely likely during 2019, given that nobody has any idea where they may next arrive (sentinel apiaries at “high risk entry points” having so far been in entirely the wrong places), or indeed, whether there are already hibernating queens here waiting to emerge and begin nest building.

Current Strategy

There seems to be little published in public view that suggests that this imminent invasion is being taken seriously, with the FERA/National Bee Unit website emphasising the importance of hornet identification, but saying little about what they plan to do to prevent its incursion or how they may deal with it should it become established. Such information is only to be found on the website of the Non-Native Species Secretariat in the form of an Action Plan, which lays out the responsibilities of various government officers in the event of an outbreak and describes in general terms what action would be taken.

However, a gaping hole in the official strategy becomes apparent when we note that in 2017 there were no less than 4,500 reports of V. velutina to the NBU by beekeepers, of which just one was verified (Woolacombe, North Devon) and then only after the beekeeper in question had made considerable efforts to photograph the hornet in order to convince the authorities that he had not been mistaken, as they initially told him he most probably was. This raises the obvious question of how many reports dismissed as false may have in fact been accurate, and - assuming (on no particular grounds) that 95% or more of such reports were indeed false as claimed - also calls into question the ability of the average beekeeper to correctly differentiate the Asian hornet from our native hornet, Vespa crabro, which is distinctly different.

We should question the wisdom of any action plan that seems to rely almost exclusively for its effective deployment on the identification of an exotic, hitherto unseen insect by untrained, unpaid and apparently incompetent people.

It seems that the NBU and the BBKA (British Bee Keepers Association) have failed to communicate effectively with beekeepers regarding the seriousness of this threat and as a result, beekeepers have failed to familiarise themselves with the literature and, in many - if not most - cases, cannot successfully differentiate between a native (and largely harmless) European hornet and the invasive, aggressive Asian hornet.

Another issue arises, which is the question of why has DEFRA apparently made little or effort to ensure that the wider public (i.e. non-beekeepers) is aware of the imminent threat, given the Asian hornet’s propensity for making its home in urban and suburban areas and aggressively defending its nest. Hornet stings are decidedly painful and given the numbers present in a nest, it is likely that children may be put at risk from attack. A number of deaths have occurred in France, most likely from anaphylaxis.

This is clearly not just a potential problem for beekeepers, but is likely to adversely affect a wide range of human activities, including food production, should there be a significant impact on pollination. It also has serious implications for wild bees and many other native species, especially birds and bats.

Further into the Action Plan, we find a good deal of detail about the various meetings that will be organised following an outbreak, and activities that apparently include:

  • Establishing a battle rhythm for the outbreak;  
  • Developing recommendations as necessary for Ministers on strategic direction of response and control policies based on scientific advice from the NBU and Defra’s Chief Scientific Adviser and Plant & Bee Health Evidence Team;  
  • Considering impacts of the outbreak;  
  • Agreeing communication and stakeholder engagement plans;

There follows a comprehensive description of the subsequent action on the ground, involving an unspecified number of staff, majoring on inter- and intra-organisational details, seemingly designed to keep people busy filling in forms for weeks.

In the increasingly likely event of several incidents occurring more-or-less simultaneously across the country, it seems highly likely that the hard-pressed NBU bee inspectors and their DEFRA colleagues will rapidly become mired in bureaucracy at the expense of practical and effective action.

Perhaps the most worrying - and revealing - paragraph in the Action Plan is this one:

37.On receipt of the report(s) from the LDCC, the NDCC will make an assessment on whether it is an isolated outbreak which may be contained. It will then make a recommendation for the SRO and LGD meeting who will then confirm if eradication should be attempted. Isolated means that Asian hornets have only been found in a very limited number of sites in a restricted geographical area (and data from the searches shows a high probability of success in eradication).

No parameters are given for the criteria on which these decisions will be made, which implies that a good deal of “subjective judgement” will be in play. In other words, as soon as the authorities are no longer able to cope with reported outbreaks, they plan to give up the fight.

Beekeepers have been placed in the front line of this battle with little or no preparation or training and no actual weapons. They are being expected to carry out scouting and surveillance operations behind enemy lines and report their findings to a remote HQ, which is more likely than not to distrust and dismiss their findings, while giving no support to beekeepers who could potentially deal with nests themselves, if they had some training.

What Can Be Done - Publicity and Education

While honeybees and their keepers will most likely be the first to feel the impact of the Asian hornet invasion, this is a much bigger issue than just another pressure on bees.

Action is needed to improve public awareness of the potential dangers associated with an unchecked invasion of Asian hornets into Britain. While they may to many people be no more visible than our native hornet, it is likely that they will cause problems for others, particularly outdoor workers, and there is little doubt that they will have a severe impact on our valuable populations of pollinators, including, but not exclusively, our honeybees, which make up approximately one third of the Asian hornet’s diet.

Outdoor workers especially, including farmers, construction workers and both amateur and professional beekeepers, along with bird watchers, walkers, gardeners and other nature lovers, need to be able to spot and identify this insect and differentiate it unambiguously from the native European hornet, not only in order to
expedite essential action, but also to avoid unnecessary destruction of V. crabro nests. Awareness of the need and the means for reporting sightings needs to be increased considerably, or opportunities will be missed.

It is far from clear whether DEFRA has any intention of stepping up its efforts to inform the general public - or, indeed, beekeepers - of the potential disaster that is about to unfold.

What Can Be Done - Technology

Given that beekeepers - like it or not - find themselves in the front line, it seems to me that they should at least be properly armed. The experience of Martyn Hocking, who discovered the hornets in North Devon suggests that photographs are essential if a report is to be taken seriously, so a smartphone or digital camera is a requirement. Spotters should also familiarise themselves with simple methods of taking a bearing from the location at which hornets are seen, in the direction of flight, which will considerably assist nest location. GPS or OS map locations are also important. An app is available for cellphones to make reporting simple.

All of these simple procedures should be well within the scope of most people. However, there is a relatively new technology that can potentially play a significant role both in locating hornet nests and possibly destroying them: the radio controlled ‘drone’, also called quadcopter, hexacopter or octacopter, according to the number of motors fitted. These are now available in a somewhat bewildering variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from tiny, pocket-size toys to hefty, flying platforms designed for cinema-quality video work, civil engineering inspection and even aerial crop-spraying (not yet legal in the UK). Many drones carry cameras, streaming live video to the operator, and could be fitted with thermal imaging cameras, which would be capable of locating hornet nests out of sight of the ground in tall trees.

Drones have two potential applications in this context:

  1. Use of smaller drones to track hornets - most likely by means of trapping a live specimen and attaching a small tracking transmitter (as is routinely done by insect researchers already) - and locating their nests, is obvious. Infra-red cameras can be used to locate nests from above, where visibility from ground level is restricted.

  1. The possibility of using them for actual nest destruction is there, but a lot of work needs to be done before it can be viewed as a routine procedure. Large drones, fitted with ingenious, home-made gadgets, have successfully been used in France to inject powdered insecticide directly into hornet nests.

Clearly, while injecting a toxic substance directly into an enclosed nest is likely to be effective at killing hornets, the residue is also likely to be as effective at killing non-target insects, as well as birds and bats. Other possibilities for nest destruction include the injection of a gas or vapour in order to kill the inhabitants without leaving a toxic residue. Carbon dioxide and steam are both under consideration.

Action is Needed Now

The lesson from France is that early action is essential, before the problem gets out of hand. We only have one chance to defeat this pest, which is to prevent it from becoming established. I understand that work is underway to find long-term solutions, including genetic engineering of one sort or another, but there are no guarantees of success and meanwhile this insect could inflict devastating damage on our bee population and aggravate the already serious decline of birds.

While government officials will, no doubt, do their best within the constraints imposed on them by budgets and manpower, the scope of their actions is highly unlikely to be adequate to deal with a persistent, adaptable invader.

Opportunities to work alongside the NBU seem currently to be virtually non-existent, as they are adamant that “it is no longer possible for beekeepers to accompany bee inspectors, under any circumstances” (quoted from an NBU representative, speaking at a meeting called by beekeepers to discuss the Asian hornet threat, Saturday January 20th 2018). Therefore, we need to educate and equip ourselves, share knowledge and experience, and make use of the technology that has recently become available and accessible.


An informal, but well-informed and competent task force needs to be organised, comprising motivated individuals with technical skills (including academics, professionals and enthusiastic amateurs), who can pool knowledge and work on a variety of approaches to the location, identification and destruction of Asian hornets. Some funding will be needed to prime the pump, and it may be possible to “crowd-fund” the project once we have something to show for our efforts.

In practical terms, we need to to contact and, where practical, visit people with appropriate skills and experience and report findings to an accessible online location. I have made a start by setting up a this page on FaceBook to begin the process of communication and coordination.

Work needs to be started on identification, tracking, location and nest destruction protocols. Specifically:

  1. Given that Asian hornets are most likely to be seen around beehives, we need to develop methods of identifying them quickly and effectively, using some of the range of sensors currently available. Most promising sensors so far are: colour recognition; sound detection and filtering; ultrasound; thermal signature.
  2. Live trapping will be the key to our ability to track insects back to their nest, once they have been tagged. Some work is being done elsewhere (Italy, I believe) using harmonic radar, but this may prove too expensive for our purposes. It may be possible to attach small radio tags (RFIDs) to a hornet without significantly impairing its ability to fly, enabling it to be tracked by a drone equipped with a receiving device. This is a potential low-cost solution.
  3. Infra-red cameras mounted on drones have successfully been used in Portugal to locate hornet nests where visual observations from the ground proved ineffective. This technology is available at moderate cost. Harmonic radar shows promise, as this is already used experimentally to track some insects, including hornets.
  4. Various means of destroying nests are currently used in France, including shotguns, high pressure water spraying and injection of pesticide directly into the nest using relatively large drones. The height and inaccessibility of nests often make all but the latter impossible, while it is clearly undesirable to fill a nest with pesticides, which will leak into the environment as the nest collapses, with considerable collateral damage to other species, possibly including humans. I suggest we investigate the use of non-polluting gases, such as carbon dioxide, and steam. Either of these could be delivered to the target using suitable drones.

The ethos of this project is very much one of “open source” (sharing experimental procedures, coding and data freely) to enable full participation by anyone who is willing and able to play a part.


I have already committed my limited resources to this project, alongside my other beekeeping activities, both in terms of time and money. I already have most of the tools and equipment I need and have made preliminary experiments with sensors and single-board computers (Arduino, Raspberry Pi, etc). I have made a start on identifying others with complementary skills, as team work will be important.

However, although I have time and technical skills, I do not have the means to buy the equipment needed to carry out the vital, real-world experiments with drones, infra-red cameras and tracking devices.

If there are indeed hibernating queen hornets already present in the UK, they will already be building their primary nests, so we need to move quickly.

Philip Chandler
Friends of the Bees CIC

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

New book - Learning From Bees: a philosophy of natural beekeeping

Need a good read about bees while yours are tucked up in their cosy hives for the winter?

I have just published a new book - only about 23,000 words this time - which is available as a paperback and in all regular ebook formats, including Kindle.

Here's the Contents page, just to whet your appetite:


5 Bees and Flowers: a Perfect Partnership
11 The Nature of Bees
23 What is Natural Beekeeping?
31 Balanced Beekeeping
38 The Importance of Drones
42 Do You Really Want to Keep Bees?
47 The Beatrix Potter Syndrome
55 The Bigger Picture
60 Sustaining The Honeybee
66 Asking Questions
69 Advice to Inventive Beekeepers
71 Inner Beekeeping
76 Learning From Bees
80 Ten Things You Can Do

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Bayer's top-selling pesticides continue to cause bee deaths worldwide

3.- 6. December: Permanent Peoples´ Tribunal at Bangalore/India

23 November 2011 -- The worrisome deaths of bee populations worldwide is likely to continue as the German agrochemical company Bayer remains unrestricted in its manufacture and sale of neonicotinoid pesticides.

Bayer's accountability in the phenomenon known as the Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is among the cases to be heard at the Permanent People's Tribunal (PPT) Session on Agrochemical Transnational Corporations (TNCs), a landmark international opinion tribunal that will try the six largest agrochemical TNCs for various human rights violations, to be held from December 3 to 6, 2011.

"Bee deaths are a global problem, so it is crucial to discuss this issue and to find solutions on an international level. It is encouraging that the PPT as a global initiative is addressing this problem, which is both an environmental and an economic threat," said Philipp Mimkes, spokesperson of the Coalition Against Bayer Dangers, a Germany-based public interest group.

Mimkes revealed that imidacloprid (product name Gaucho) and clothianidin (product name Poncho) remain Bayer's top-selling pesticides, despite the fact that this class of pesticides, known as neonicotinoids, is strongly linked to CCD.

In 2010, Gaucho sales were valued at US$ 820 million while Poncho sales were valued at US$ 260 million. Gaucho ranks first among Bayer's best-selling pesticide, while Poncho ranks seventh. "This is the reason why Bayer, despite the serious environmental damage they cause, is fighting tooth and nail against any application prohibition of neonicotinoids," said Mimkes.

In Europe, many dangerous uses of neonicotinoids have been banned. Germany, Italy, France and Slovenia have stopped the use of Gaucho and Poncho as a seed dressing for corn, their most important application. However, the use of these pesticides is unrestricted in many countries, including the U.S. where one-third of the bee population has died every year since 2006.

Honeybees pollinate over 70 out of 100 crops that provide 90% of the world's food. They pollinate most fruits and vegetables-including apples, oranges, strawberries, onions and carrots. The declining bee population thus has potentially serious impacts on food security and livelihood of farmers. It can also affect the range of food crops that can be grown and consequently the nutritional value and variety of our food supply.

Decline of bee populations
CCD is used to described the drastic decline of bee populations across the world, which started in the mid-1990s. This was also the same period when neonicotinoids were introduced in the market. In 1994, honeybee populations started dying in France, and later in Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Poland, England, Slovenia, Greece, Belgium, Canada, U.S., Brazil, Japan, and India.
Neonicotinoids are a class of pesticides that are chemically related to nicotine. They are taken up by a plant's vascular system and released through pollen, nectar and water droplets from which bees then forage and drink.

While CCD is likely caused by a combination of many factors including the stresses of industrial beekeeping and loss of habitat, many scientists believe that exposure to pesticides is a critical factor. Neonicotinoids are of particular concern because they have cumulative, sublethal effects on bees and other insect pollinators. These effects include neurobehavioral and immune system disruptions that correspond to CCD symptoms.

CCD has severe impacts on the livelihoods of beekeepers around the globe. In the U.S., where beekeeping industry is valued at US$ 15 billion, losses due to CCD are estimated to be from 29 to 36 percent per year.

In 1991, Bayer began producing imidacloprid, which is now one of the most widely used insecticides for field and horticultural crops, especially maize, sunflower, and rape. In 1999, however, France banned imidacloprid as a seed dressing for sunflowers, after a third of French honeybees died following its widespread use. Five years later, it was also banned as a corn treatment.

Bayer then produced clothianidin, a successor to imidacloprid. This was brought into the American market in 2003, and the German market in 2006. Clothianidin is also a neonicotinoid and highly toxic to honeybees.

A recent United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report described the Bayer pesticides clothianidin and imidacloprid as a risk to numerous animals. It revealed that these chemicals potentially cause toxic chronic exposure to non-target pollinators, as well as animals such as cats, fish, rats, rabbits, birds and earthworms. "Laboratory studies have shown that such chemicals can cause loss of sense of direction, impair memory and brain metabolism, and cause mortality," the UNEP report said.

Due to their high level of persistence, neonicotinoids can remain in the soil for several years. Thus, even untreated crops planted in fields where the pesticides were previously used can take up the toxins from the soil via their roots.

In 2008 in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Southern Germany, two thirds of the honeybee population along the Rhine River died when dust from the clothianidin seed treatment on corn drifted onto neighbouring fields as the corn was been sown. This resulted in an average loss of 17,000 Euros for affected beekepers. Tests on the dead bees showed that 99 percent had a build-up of clothianidin. Butterflies and other useful insects disappeared at the same.

Aggressive push to stop neonicotinoids
Mimkes' group has been campaigning against neonicotinoids since 1997, when the hazards of neonicotinoids were more or less unknown to the broader public. He said that it is about time that Bayer is aggressively pushed to stop the manufacture and sale of these pesticides, and is made accountable for the economic loss and environmental damage brought by their products.

"The most important development is that today there are thousands of reports, articles and studies around the world about the correlation of exposure to pesticides such as imidacloprid and clothianidin, and the widespread decline of bees. Beekeepers and environmental groups in many countries have become active, and have pressed governments and authorities to protect bees," he said.

Environmental and beekeeping associations worldwide have gathered 1.2 million signatures to demand that clothianidin be removed from the market, which were presented to Bayer's Chief Executive Officer during a shareholder's meeting. The signature campaign was prompted by the public leak of an internal memo from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which confirms the risk that the pesticide poses to bees and describes Bayer safety studies to be inadequate.

The EPA in 2003 provided "conditional registration" to clothianidin, pending Bayer's conduct of a chronic life cycle study on its effect on bees. Bayer asked for more time to finish its research, during which period it extensively sold the product. Bayer finally submitted its study in 2007, which the EPA declared as "scientifically sound" and used as a basis for the continued registration of clothianidin.
But the leaked EPA memo revealed that EPA granted Bayer permission to conduct its study on canola, instead of corn-a crucial distinction, since canola is a minor crop compared to corn. Furthermore, the studies were conducted on test fields that were too small and close together. With bees foraging in a range of up to six miles, it thus seemed most likely that the test bees dined outside of the test fields, the memo further said.

The upcoming PPT Session on Agrochemical TNCs will include in its indictment governments and institutions that in several instances colluded with agrochemical TNCs in violations of the right to life, health, and livelihood, among other basic human rights.

According to Mimkes, "Previous PPTs have helped to put pressure on companies, so we hope that it brings additional momentum for the campaign to stop the mass death of bees."
The PPT has its historical roots in the tribunals on the Vietnam War and Latin American dictatorships. In the more recent era of corporate globalisation, PPTs have tackled and exposed TNCs which operate above national laws and can commit human rights violations with impunity.
The PPT Session on Agrochemical TNCs is the first to target Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, Dow Chemical, DuPont, and BASF or the six companies currently in control of the world's food and agricultural system

More info on the Tribunal:

Bee devastation: Campaign for total ban of neonicotinoid pesticides

Coalition against BAYER Dangers (in English)
Tel: (+49) 211-333 911 Fax: (+49) 211-333 940
please send an e-mail to receive the English newsletter "Keycode BAYER" free of charge

Advisory Board
Prof. Juergen Junginger, designer
Prof. Dr. Juergen Rochlitz, chemist, former member of the German parliament
Wolfram Esche, attorney
Dr. Sigrid Müller, pharmacologist
Prof. Rainer Roth, social scientist
Eva Bulling-Schroeter, member of the German parliament
Prof. Dr. Anton Schneider, biologist
Dr. Janis Schmelzer, historian,
Dr. Erika Abczynski, pediatrician

Thursday, November 17, 2011

How To Make Your Own Bee-Friendly Zone

Here's an idea that I have been kicking around for a while - actually, years - waiting for the right time to launch it into the world...

Like most of the best ideas, it is simple and easy to implement.

The idea is to create Bee-Friendly Zones in as many places as possible, from window boxes to gardens, from public parks to whole towns and cities.

What is a Bee-Friendly Zone?

A BFZ is simply a safe place for bees and - by implication - to other insects and other wildlife. A BFZ is characterized by having bee-friendly flowers - especially wild flowers - and no toxic chemicals.

That means you can make a BFZ really easily by (a) planting some wild flower seeds, and (b) avoiding the use of any insecticides or herbicides within the BFZ.

Literally anyone with access to even a small patch of land can make a BFZ - and if you only have room for a windowbox or a planter, that can also be a BFZ.

OK, it sounds simple, so what's the big deal?

Imagine if you make your garden a BFZ and put up a small sign that says, 'This is a Bee-Friendly Zone'. Your neighbours get curious and ask you about it and some of them also make BFZs. They tell their friends on Facebook and Twitter... You get the picture: soon we could have BFZs springing up all over the place - schools, public parks, whole neighbourhoods...

And all these BFZs are free from toxic pesticides. Which means that fewer and fewer people buy them and all the big stores and garden centres don't even sell them anymore, because people kept asking them, 'Why do you sell this stuff that kills bees?'.

How quickly could we make this happen?

Find out more here

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Disclosure of the Locations of GM Crops

Bees are unique as 'farmed' animals in that they have no constraints placed on their movements: they cannot be contained by fences, walls or hedges. For this reason, they must and will forage where they please.

Honeybees typically fly up to five kilometers from their hive in search of food. Their instinct for efficient use of fuel dictates that they will only fly as far as necessary to collect what they consider to be high quality food, and it is well known that they have a preference for certain types of flowers, and that they will make use of whatever is available to them, within their range, that offers significantly greater returns in terms of calories and nutritional content than they expend in its collection.

Thus, honeybees will fly over apple blossom, dandelions and clover to get to a flowering field of oilseed rape that is within their flying range, because of the high concentration of nectar and pollen that such a crop offers. This does not mean that OSR is necessarily more nutritionally beneficial to bees than apple, dandelion or clover flowers, but simply that they find a field of such a crop irresistible because of the sheer quantity of food that it represents.

If we are to retain the decreasing number of commercial beekeepers willing and able to provide honey-production and pollination services, and if we are to continue growing field crops that depend on bees for pollination, then their needs must be respected and planned for. One such need is to be able to produce honey that is recognised as being pure and unadulterated, and thus free from any contaminants, including systemic insecticides that are present by design in many GM crops. Such insecticides may or may not be intrinsically lethal to bees, but may have as-yet-unproven sub-lethal side-effects, particularly on the bees' navigation systems. They may also have digestive or oxidation breakdown products that could be toxic to bees, and/or may prove to have harmful effects on the human consumers of their products, which also include pollen, beeswax and propolis.

Commercial beekeeping in Britain has become increasingly marginal over the last 50 years, largely due to the unregulated importation of cheap honey from China, the Indian sub-continent and eastern Europe. One beekeeper of my aquaintance, who runs 1500 hives with only two men, told me recently that in the 1960s it took one ton of honey to pay a man's wages for the year, while now it takes six tons. While some commercial beekeepers provide mobile pollination services, and some others move their hives to moorland locations for the heather honey crop, escalating transport costs have rendered large-scale hive movements less and less profitable.

There are an estimated 50,000 amateur beekeepers in Britain, whose bees perform countless millions of pollination operations every day during the growing season. While they do not count towards our GDP, they do represent a considerable, unpaid contribution towards the welfare of our parks and gardens, as well as the production of both wild and domestic fruit and vegetables. These amateur beekeepers have their hives mostly in fixed positions and would not be able to move them in order to avoid their bees foraging on nearby GM crops.

I would suggest that, just as extensive sheep farmers will want to know what their animals are feeding on, and to have the opportunity to prevent them ingesting any potentially toxic material, that beekeepers must also have the right to know that their charges are foraging on flowers that will not cause them harm. Until peer-reviewed, long-term studies are produced that demonstrate conclusively that GM crops present no dangers to bees, and produce no toxic breakdown products as a result of being consumed by bees, that any GM-contaminated crops be identified and their location clearly signposted so that beekeepers are not subjected to the hazards they potentially represent.

Monday, April 25, 2011

What Is Wrong With Modern Beekeeping?

Text of a talk presented at the Spring Convention of the British Bee Keepers Association, April 15 2011

Some speakers begin with a foreword; I shall begin with a forewarning: this talk may offend some people.

It will offend creationists, who choose to ignore the evidence for evolution; it will offend fundamentalists, who believe that the only purpose of the so-called 'lower forms of life' is to serve mankind; it will offend those who believe that the Reverend Langstroth was revealing God's word when he designed his movable frame hive; and it will offend those who choose to ignore the paradigm shift that is occurring today among people who have woken up to the damage being done to our planet by the corporations that seek to own it.

The title of this talk - What Is Wrong With Modern Beekeeping? - begs a question: is there something wrong with modern beekeeping?

My contention is that there is indeed much that is wrong with it, and that the root of the problem lies in the anthropocentric, pre-Darwinian belief that we are in charge: that humankind has a God-given right to dominion over all other forms of life, and that animals – including bees – were created purely to serve us.

'Modern' beekeeping can be said to have begun in the year 1852 – the year that Langstroth patented his hive. He did so, it should be noted, with the express purpose of making the commercial exploitation of bees a practical possibility.
1852 was also the year that Langstroth published his book, The Hive and the Honeybee, in which we find the following passage:

“The Creator intended the bee for the comfort of man, as truly as he did the horse or the cow.

The honey bee was... created not merely with the ability to store up its delicious nectar for its own use, but with certain properties which fitted it to be domesticated, and to labor for man, and without which, he would no more have been able to subject it to his control, than to make a useful beast of burden of a lion or a tiger.”

Which is to say that, according to this creed, not only were bees created in order to provide us with something sweet, but that they were allocated 'certain properties' that enable us to domesticate them. In those days, most people shared Langstroth's belief that 'The Creator intended the bee for the comfort of man' and that its purpose was to 'labor for man'.

And yet, unbeknown to the Reverend Langstroth, some twenty years earlier, a little ship had set sail from Plymouth harbour on a five-year voyage that was to change our understanding of the world forever. That ship was The Beagle, and just seven years after Langstroth completed his book, Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species.

That was over 150 years ago. And yet, even today, despite Darwin's insights having been tested over and over by science; despite overwhelming evidence that all life is interdependent; despite irrefutable proof of the consequences of worldwide destruction of habitat and the poisoning of our life-giving soil by profit-driven corporations; despite all that, we see people still behaving as if they had God-given dominion over life on earth.

And what of so-called 'modern beekeeping'? Has it fully embraced the post-Darwinian world? Or does it still operate from that old testament, fundamentalist paradigm? Are we – as appears to be the case - still teaching people how to 'manage' and 'control' bees, when we should be teaching them how to observe, listen to and work with the bees?

We know that honeybees are finely adapted to their environment, from having evolved closely - over many millions of years – alongside the flowering plants on which they depend.

We know that the plants themselves depend on bees and other insects for pollination, and we know that the well-being of our planet and all life upon it depends on a healthy soil, nurturing a flourishing, diverse range of plants, which feed insects, then birds and fish, then mammals, carnivores and ultimately ourselves.

We know all that. And yet we have allowed our agricultural system to fall into the hands of those whose only concern is their own profit, and who care nothing for soil health or biodiversity. Their only concern is for increased sales of soil-destroying artificial fertilizers, herbicides that poison our water and insecticides that kill an entire sector of the food chain, including - and most importantly - our bees.

Here's what an American writer and beekeeper, Kirk Webster, said in 2006:

“All of American agriculture is suffering terribly now from trying to force a process based on the workings of Nature into an industrial and business model. The ability to produce quality food has been abandoned in the quest to grow ever larger quantities of cheap, low quality commodities from our vast resources of soil and water. Because human health depends very largely on having continuous access to quality food, almost all Americans are suffering as a result of this process.“

And it's not just Americans.

We can no longer pretend that the old, pre-Darwinian paradigm has any validity: we do not have - and we never have had - dominion over life on earth. Only a fool would leave a species like ours in charge of a planet.

We are only a part of life on earth, far less numerous than some, and yet we are by far the most destructive species ever to have lived here and we show little sign of reforming any time soon.

What is worse is that we seem to be incapable - as a species - of learning from our mistakes. Few people would say that war is a civilized way of settling disputes, and yet there has never been a time in recorded history when some part of the human race has not been at war with some other part. And most of those wars were and are based on differences of religious belief, with absolutely no hard evidence to back up either side.

In a similar way, we have bought into the corporate notion that we are somehow 'at war with nature', and that any living thing - be it plant or insect - that appears to stand in the way of the efficient production of shiny, cheap and tasteless supermarket food must be the enemy and therefore must be controlled and, if possible, eliminated.

The passage I quoted earlier from Langstroth's The Hive and the Honeybee illuminates the exact point in history when the Old Testament doctrine that 'bees are subject to our will' was cemented into beekeeping lore.

And there it remains to this day as a pervasive, if largely unstated belief. It finds expression in the teaching programmes of bee keepers' associations, where there is an underlying presumption that the only acceptable reason for keeping bees is the production of the maximum quantity of honey.

Roger Morse, in his 'Complete Guide To Beekeeping', flatly states that, 'The goal in beekeeping should be honey production...' and that 'Only a beekeeper who produces as much honey as possible thoroughly understands bees, beekeeping and bee biology.'

This attitude of nature-dominating, production-driven beekeeping is the legacy of Langstroth and his disciples that continues to be preached to this day.

It sees a bee colony as a mere commodity for making profit; the hive as a machine for making honey, rather than the home of the bees. It regards weekly disturbance of the colony, and the addition of toxic chemicals as normal.

It regards the bees merely as units of production, that are expendable and that can be killed, replaced, traded, or transported at will.

It pays little heed to the needs of other local species or the local ecology, while being responsible for importing of varroa, viruses, nosema and a host of pathogens and parasites from around the world.

Thus, the typical response by 'old hands' to new beekeepers, who express shock at the considerable investment in new equipment required of them: “You can always recoup your investment by selling honey!”

And so the innocent beginner becomes locked into the 'bee-farming' mentality, and what was once in their mind to become an engaging hobby, turns instantly into a small business, with a profit-and-loss account and bees now regarded as stock with a monetary value, instead of wild creatures fleetingly in our care.

That commercial exploitation of bees has played a large part in the problems we now face is clear, but that does not necessarily mean that all commercial beekeeping activity is destructive.

I recently had a conversation with a beekeeper, who, with one other man, runs 1500 hives. His principles include minimal interference, minimal mite treatment and little movement of hives. He does not inspect every 8 days looking for queen cells, nor does he import artificially inseminated queens: he has, over many years, created the conditions for the bees to interbreed and create an ecotype that is adapted to his local conditions. I know of another commercial beekeeper in another part of the country who operates in a very similar way.

This methodology has a lot in common with post-modern, 'natural beekeeping' philosophy, guided by a principle, which I hold to be self-evident, that bees know best what is good for them and that our job is to listen, to watch and to follow their lead.

Contrast this with the teachings of the disciples of Langstroth, who insist that they know best when a queen should be replaced, which strain of bee she should be replaced with, and what size cells she should be allowed to lay into. And then they wonder why their honeybees appear to suffer from parasites, 'mystery disappearances' and diseases that were virtually unknown before the advent of the movable-frame hive, re-cycled wax foundation and chemical medications.

Of course, beekeepers are not entirely to blame for the ills of bees: much of the responsibility for the mess we now find ourselves in must be laid squarely at the door of the agri-chemical industry, whi began by selling to farmers the weapons of chemical warfare left over from the First World War, and ever since have systematically poisoned our agricultural land, our water supplies and our wild places, deriving massive profits from peddling their toxic wares, while infiltrating and disabling all attempts to regulate their activities.

If proof were needed of the fatal power of human greed over rational, long-term thinking, one would not need to look further than the corporate entities of Monsanto, Bayer, BASF, Syngenta and their like to find it.

Nevertheless, beekeepers must accept their share of the blame for perpetuating the notion that all ills can be cured using the right 'magic bullet' treatment, be it prophylactic antibiotics, pyrethroid miticides or pollen substitutes. No sooner does a disease appear, than beekeepers are reaching for the latest bottle of medicine, with little thought for the possible long-term consequences.

Contrary to what we are often told, bee diseases made a serious impact as a direct result of the proliferation of intensive, commercial beekeeping, during the half century following the introduction of Langstroth's hive.

Here's what the American beekeeper C P Dadant wrote in 1920:

"If anyone had asked us, twenty years ago, how much trouble might be expected from bee-diseases, we should probably have shrugged our shoulders and answered that they were very insignificant and hardly worthy of notice. For forty years after we began beekeeping the only disease we saw in the apiary was diarrhoea... from which the bees suffered more or less after a protracted winter, especially when their food was not of the best... Foul brood, in either of its two forms was entirely unknown to us. In 1903 the writer had to go as far away as Colorado to be able to see some rare samples of it... It was not until the spring of 1908 that we found it among our bees..."

Just a few years later in 1928, this explanation of the sudden increase in bee diseases was offered by a British beekeeper, A Gilman, in his book 'Practical Bee Breeding'

"...disease is an expression of lowered vitality ...and simultaneously with increased fecundity there has been an extraordinary increase of disease. Their connection may be denied, but when we find a similar occurrence taking place with other livestock which we know to have been pushed for super-production, we consider the matter far more than a mere coincidence."

He goes on:

"...the increase of diseases has occurred principally in those countries where modern methods of breeding have prevailed. In America, brood diseases became so devastating as to call for legislation... on the continent of Europe, apiarists have been troubled with Nosema disease...

we had Isle of Wight disease, which so decimated apiaries all over the country that we had to resort to foreign bees for re-stocking purposes."

Gilman went on to draw this conclusion about 'modern beekeeping':

"...the only conclusion to which one can come, is that the principles on which the whole structure of modern apiculture are based must be at fault, in either one or more important directions."

Many years later, when the Varroa mite appeared in Europe as a direct result of the international bee trade, the treatment of choice was a synthetic pyrethroid, to which, in just a few years, the mites inevitably and entirely predictably developed immunity. Our interventions, combined with the effects of (BBKA-endorsed) pyrethroids concurrently being applied to farmland, actually created the conditions in which the mite could quickly evolve resistance to treatment.

As a direct consequence of this short-term 'magic-bullet' thinking, we now have mites that are substantially more difficult to kill.

So, how might we go about putting things right?

Firstly, we need to look at our underlying attitudes to bees.

Rather than seeking to dominate and control them, we need to respect them: after all, they have been around for many millions of years longer than we have.
We need to acknowledge that here are other legitimate reasons for keeping bees, apart from a desire to extract the maximum yield of honey from them. They are intrinsically valuable, simply for their part in nature. Many people want to keep a hive or two just to have them around, and have no desire to rob them of their honey.

Bees have evolved alongside the flowering plants and have become intimately adapted to them, as the plants have to the bees. We cannot think of bees as separate from plants: they are part of each other and they depend on each other for their very existence.

What we do to flowering plants, we do to bees. If we poison the plants, we poison the bees. If we coat the seeds of our food crops with toxins - such as Bayer's Clothianidin - and those toxins are taken up by plants to become part of their reproductive system, then we are certainly poisoning the bees and all other insects that come into contact with those plants. Not only that, but these systemic insecticides remain in the soil for many years, killing beneficial insects along with the so-called pests. They are taken up by other plants, including those decorative wild flower borders sown around crop fields by well-meaning farmers who think they are helping the bees. Wild flowers will take up the same toxic chemicals and will become lethal to bees in just the same way.

Dr. Jeff Pettis, research leader at the USDA-ARS Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, USA, spoke to Members of Parliament in April 2011 about the subject of threats to bees, saying:

“The reason I am conducting research on the neonicotinoid group is that they have a new route of exposure to bees, through pollen and nectar, and I continue to be concerned about their potential negative impacts on pollinators.”

He also said that it wasn't just one factor that was responsible for the decline in bee health:

“I think there's more of what I call the 3-P principle – poor nutrition, pesticides and pathogens. Those three things are interacting greatly. Nutrition is the foundation of good bee health, and certainly there's some pesticide exposure going on, but it varies widely over time and space. And the pathogens in my opinion are often acting secondarily. But it's the interaction of these three. You get three of them lined up then surely you'll have bees in poor health. Even the combination of any two could be problematic.”

So, poor nutrition, pesticides and pathogens: the first two of those three are tied to modern, chemical agriculture: poor nutrition being a consequence of monocultured crops and the consequent reduction in biodiversity.

The damaging effects of pathogens are likely to be exacerbated by poor nutrition and pesticides combining forces to weaken the bees' immune systems.

Pathogens are also transported around the world by the international bee trade. Banning all imports of bees into the UK would go some way towards stopping this locally, but we have to recognize that viruses are already everywhere, waiting for their opportunity to grow and spread. While we support toxic agriculture, we are making it easier for them to do so.

We urgently need to radically reform our agricultural system, so that it is not dependent on artificial fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides.

The BBKA should be supporting the organic movement, which is working to develop efficient systems of food production without the use of toxic chemicals. Instead, they have chosen to side with the pesticide industry.

A charity that claims to have the interests of bees and beekeeping at heart should never put itself in a position where it is under the influence of businesses whose purpose is to sell insecticides that kill bees. It is the equivalent of a cancer research charity being controlled by a tobacco company, or a brewery sponsoring Alcoholics Anonymous.

Secondly, amateurs should not be forced to mimic professionals.

When a newcomer turns up at her first bee keepers' association meeting, with the innocent notion that she wishes to keep a couple of hives at the bottom of her garden, she should not be forced to invest hundreds of pounds in hives and equipment that was designed for commercial beekeeping, and that may be too heavy for her to lift when full of bees and honey. Neither should the justification for such expense on ludicrously unsuitable kit be justified by telling her that she needs to become business-minded and sell her honey in order to pay for it.

And in case you think I am being disingenuous in using the feminine gender to make my case, I can tell you that every single course I ran during 2010 had a majority of female participants, and one was comprised entirely of women. When I started beekeeping at the turn of the century, female beekeepers were a rarity, and women's roles at beekeeping meetings were largely restricted to serving tea and cakes.
Beekeeping has been a male preserve for too long, in my opinion, and it is time that women were welcomed back. They were the first victims of the Langstroth hegemony: there were plenty of women in beekeeping in the days of skeps, and the top bar hive is now making it possible for them to return. I have had numerous emails from women thanking me for introducing them to a system of beekeeping that does not require them to lift 50-pound boxes.

We need to consider other types of hive for use by back-garden beekeepers: Nationals and Langstroths do not suit everyone.

Thirdly, we need to look at modern beehives and beekeeping practices from the point of view of our bees.

The Langstroth hive and all of its imitations, including the British National hive, make it relatively easy for beekeepers to interfere with bees and shuffle their combs like a deck of cards, but they do little or nothing to support the natural lives of the bees.

Hive walls are absurdly thin, and do little to help bees regulate their temperature while being easily penetrated by woodpeckers. Honey supers and brood boxes, when full are heavier than most people can safely lift, resulting in back pain and hernias – commonplace among commercial beekeepers. Frames are fragile, prone to being glued together by propolis, and create useful hiding places for the wax moth, while bearing almost no resemblance to the shape that bees choose to build their natural combs. Drones are suppressed by the use of uniform, over-sized foundation, which is recycled along with the toxins it accumulates from pesticides applied both inside and outside the hive. Queens are routinely imported, artificially inseminated, marked, clipped and replaced.

Brood combs are re-used too many times, contributing to the recurrence of disease; swarm cells are hacked out unthinkingly; medications and pest treatments are tossed in more-or-less at a whim.

All these practices are routine even among experienced beekeepers and are often taught as gospel to beginners. They all derive from the same attitude: we know better than the bees.

All these practices need to be examined and questioned: there should be no sacred cows in beekeeping.

There is a strong and growing movement in this country towards more 'natural' beekeeping, which the BBKA has so far failed to acknowledge, presumably in the hope that it will just go away.

'Natural beekeepers' use no synthetic chemicals in their hives and follow less invasive practices. They put the welfare of their bees above honey production targets, and only take honey when the bees can easily spare it. They use hives that help the bees conserve heat, and open them infrequently. They observe, they listen, and they act sparingly and with care.

Natural beekeepers may not yet have all the answers to the welfare of bees, but at least they are asking the right questions.

As I see it, our main job as bee keepers, or bee guardians, or bee herders, or whatever we choose to call ourselves, is to to be observant and to understand our bees to the best of our ability. We cannot fully enter into their world, but we have the opportunity to gain a greater appreciation of it.

And once we begin to understand how intimately embedded they are in the natural world, and what sensitive indicators they are of disturbances therein, we may begin to develop a deep appreciation of the interconnectedness of all living things. And that leads us inevitably to the conclusion that we have a responsibility towards – not only the bees – but towards everything that walks on the earth and flies in the air and shares this precious planet with us.

So yes – I think there is a great deal wrong with modern beekeeping. Much of it can be put right before it is too late, but it will require long-term, strategic thinking and inspired leadership. Sadly, I see little evidence of either among our politicians or the current beekeeping priesthood.

But I do have faith in the next generation of beekeepers: those who have come to the craft motivated by a passion for nature and an instinctive recognition of what is good for the long-term. They know what needs to be done, and I believe they will do it.

They may take their inspiration from Bolivia, which is set to pass a law granting all of nature equal rights to humans. According to a newspaper report, “The Law of Mother Earth redefines the country's rich mineral deposits as "blessings" and is expected to lead to radical new conservation and social measures to reduce pollution and control industry.

[Bolivia] will establish 11 new rights for nature. They include: the right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered.”

Vice-President Alvaro García Linera is quoted as saying, "It makes world history. Earth is the mother of all. It establishes a new relationship between man and nature, the harmony of which must be preserved as a guarantee of its regeneration."

That is the kind of thinking we need more of, right now, in politics and in beekeeping.

Philip Chandler
April 2011

Thursday, February 17, 2011

10 Lessons We Can Learn From Honeybees

We can learn many things by observing the behaviour of honeybees. Here are ten examples of lessons we could usefully apply to our own lives.

1) Honeybees live within their means. There are no banks, loans or credit cards in the bees' world; only the resources they themselves gather and store. Like us, bees need to eat every day, and they do everything in their power to ensure a constant food supply by storing it – not so much for themselves, but for bees yet to be born.

2) Honeybees achieve extraordinary things by working together. Fifty thousand workers can shift a lot of stuff. Co-operation is the key to their success: tens of thousands of individuals behaving as a single organism.

3) Honeybees demonstrate that division of labour can be highly efficient. And everyone knowing how to do the full range of essential jobs makes for flexibility and adaptability. Bees move through a series of jobs in the hive before finally emerging as food-gatherers. In an emergency, they can revert to their former occupations to make up for losses.

4) Honeybees make honey while the sun shines. Bees are opportunists, taking advantage of available food as soon as conditions are right. Even when their stores seem full, they will find odd corners to pack with food,

5) Honeybees behave as though individuals matter, while the common good is always their first priority. Ego is not a feature of honeybees: their first duty is to the colony and bees will sacrifice themselves without hesitation if they perceive a threat to the colony.

6) Honeybees understand that hard times happen, and they are always prepared for shortages as well as disasters.

7) Honeybees share: they know there is plenty for everyone, including other species. Honeybees do not compete head-on with other species: there is overlap in their food sources, but they do not need to drive others from their territory.

8) Honeybees adapt to their surroundings. They know that this is the only effective survival strategy. This extends even to their use of propolis, which varies according to local conditions, and can protect them against localized pathogens.

9) Honeybees understand that honest communication is at the heart of community. Bees are great communicators, using vibrations and pheromones to pass complex messages around their colony. As far as we know, they are incapable of telling anything but the truth as they understand it.

10) Honeybees' survival depends on selecting high quality, un-tainted food from a variety of sources. Because we have assumed control of much of the available land for our own purposes, we are responsible for ensuring that they continue to have access to flowers untainted by toxic chemicals to which they have no defence.

For almost all of the last 80 million years or so, bees have had flowering plants to themselves. Only in the last 100 years has their natural diet been contaminated with substances they can never before have encountered: man-made chemicals designed to poison them and their kind, some of them cunningly incorporated into the very bodies of the plants they feed on. More and more of these toxins are being spread on crops and on the soil, and the bees have no chance of surviving their onslaught.

We must reform our farming methods. The alternative is a world controlled by corporations, intent on bringing the food chain completely under their control.

The elimination of 'nuisance species' is already underway by those who stand to profit from GM crops. To those who stand to make billions of dollars from maize, wheat, rice and cotton, the honeybees are irrelevant. They simply don't care if they disappear: they have no use for them, as all the crops that grow from the GM seeds they sell are wind-pollinated.

Ironically, some of these very same corporations are already making profits from breeding and selling other bee species - such as mason bees and bumblebees - to those whose crops do require pollination. Because these bees need to be bred in quantity and renewed every year, they have found a way to commercially benefit from the developing situation that must raise questions about their involvement in the demise of the honeybee.

Have they, in fact, deliberately poisoned the honeybee in order to exploit the resulting gap in the market?