March 27, 2010 12:31 am

Dispatch from Devon

For years, scientists and honey farmers have been worrying about the phenomenon of vanishing bees
Paddy Wallace in a protective suit at his Quince Honey Farm in South Molton

Having decided that spring had finally sprung, Paddy Wallace zipped himself into his protective suit, grabbed his veil and headed off in his tractor round the country lanes of North Devon.

Wallace is the second-generation owner of Quince Honey Farm in South Molton, one of the biggest bee farms in Britain, and his mission was to assess the winter’s depredations. He has 1,500 hives spread around his neighbours’ fields in one of the most glorious symbiotic relationships in agriculture: he borrows a sliver of their land, and his bees pollinate their crops.

But there has been little glory in the honey-bee business in recent years. At midsummer peak, Wallace should be the proud possessor of about 90 million bees, but over each of the previous three winters he had lost almost a third of his stock.

He had no idea what he might find this time. He hadn’t checked since November, partly because it is bad practice to disturb bees without good reason, and partly because he hardly dared look.

Wallace’s losses are not untypical – and nothing to those experienced in the US, where whole colonies have taken to disappearing on bright summer days. They leave home in their hundreds of thousands, never to be heard of again. This is the phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) or, more picturesquely, Marie Celeste syndrome, and scientists, farmers – and journalists – have been worrying about it for several years now. Fifty billion bees are said to have vanished in the US alone.

Personally, I have always assumed that when the world ends, the harbinger will be the extinction of something small, delicate and easily overlooked. The bee seems like the ideal candidate. One human mouthful in three – the scariest scenario runs – depends directly or indirectly on bee-pollination. Without it, humans would be largely reduced to a diet of cereals, rice and humble pie. This notion has become, of late, a touch less implausible. And no one knows why.

There are at least 20,000 species of bees on earth. But one of them, Apis mellifera, has offered mankind the most perfect symbiosis of all. The honey bee turns nectar into honey to survive over the winter, because nectar itself ferments. And someone, round about the Mesolithic age, discovered that honey was rather agreeable to the human palate, too.

It has never been an easy relationship, though. Bees are not as biddable as, say, sheep. And I noticed, talking to bee farmers, that they did seem a bit like their charges: dedicated, industrious, full of ancient mystery and a touch grumpy when prodded. “It’s one of the stupidest occupations you could consider,” said Wallace, “especially in our climate.”

Wallace’s bees are meant to have a seasonal rhythm. After a less harsh winter, they would have emerged weeks ago to start feeding off the first spring flowers, a diet that would sustain them through a tricky gap in June before the white clover and the blackberries bloom. Then, in early August, he takes them – as others take their kids – on their summer holidays: to nearby Exmoor, where they can gorge on the heather.

But a succession of wet summers have ruined the bees’ holidays, too. “Last year we got about 300 jars of honey from Exmoor,” he said. “I’d have had to sell that at £40 a jar to break even.” Fortunately, honey does store well, so good years can cancel out the bad. Nonetheless, the climate helps explain why beekeeping in the UK tends to be less a job than a hobby, traditionally practised by retired schoolmistresses living in country cottages.

Further south, it tends to be more industrial, but European beekeeping is nothing compared with the practice in the US, where many farmers have given up honey and rent out their bees as pollinators, trucking them, in some cases, from the orange groves of Florida to deal with the almond orchards of California followed by the blueberry blossoms of Maine – an absurd necessity created by farming monocultures. Some people think CCD is simply a mass walkout in protest against appalling working conditions. “We don’t treat our bees that way,” said John Howat, secretary of Britain’s Bee Farmers’ Association. One does get the feeling that, as a species, bees may well be smarter than their human masters.

The strike theory is at least as good an explanation as some of the others that have been offered: mobile phone masts interfering with navigation systems, a Russian conspiracy, GM crops or The Rapture, which millennialists believe presages the return of Christ. The recent film Vanishing of the Bees put the blame squarely on pesticides known as neonicotinoids. The case sounded flimsy even to me, and is rejected by more qualified judges as well. “There is some evidence that some pesticides are having subtle effects on bees,” said bee ecologist Juliet Osborne of the Rothamsted Experimental Station in Hertfordshire. “But of all the studies in the US and Europe, none of them has suggested they are the most important. Neonicotinoids have been banned in France, and there is no sign so far that it has made any difference.”

Most concern in Europe focuses on the varroa mite, a longstanding menace that initially weakens bees rather than killing them. The mites (which may also be smarter than us) have grown increasingly immune to the pesticide used to control them. This may be connected with the American experience, too. But even the experts are uncertain.

One improbable side effect of the scare has been a beekeeping boom. In Lincolnshire, E.H. Thorne (Beehives) reports a substantial upsurge in business since introducing a new budget range of hives for neophyte keepers (not all of them retired schoolmistresses) who may not yet have had a reaction from their neighbours, or discovered that bees, like puppies, are for life rather than Christmas. Not to mention the drawback that bees sting. With his 1,500 hives, Wallace reckons he regularly gets stung a dozen times a day; in the old days – before zip-up bee suits – it might have been 30.

Wallace, meanwhile, just wanted to know that his bees had got past Christmas. He went out into the watery March sunshine and started peering into the hives. “Much as I expected,” was his first comment. “Probably about a 20 per cent loss so far, with some weak ones that probably won’t make it. But it’s not a catastrophe and it might end up slightly better than the last few years.” First time out, he didn’t even get stung: at this time of year, the bees are too bemused to get cross.

There was something else he wanted to tell me. “I know I moan and groan, but I do love it. There really isn’t anything better than lying on a grassy bank on a sunny day watching a contented hive at work.” There must be something in what he says: his son Ian has decided to make it three generations in the business. Maybe mankind and beekind will both stagger on a bit longer yet.

matthew.engel@ft.com

Matthew Engel’s Dispatch appears fortnightly

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