Britain's honeybees have suffered catastrophic losses this year according to the first survey of UK beekeepers. Close on one in three hives failed to make it through this winter and spring - that's about 80,000 colonies - leaving us with a potential crisis on our hands. Fewer honeybees will, as you'd expect, mean less honey. But as British honey only accounts for around 10% of the honey we consume in the UK, we should still be able to spread the sweet stuff on our toast well after the indigenous varieties run out, albeit at a higher price, as droughts in Argentina and the conversion of land for biofuel production reduce global supply.
More worryingly, insects pollinate a third of everything we humans eat - most fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, and forage for our livestock. As we become more and more dependent on a monoculture system of growing food, we become more reliant on the honeybee to do the bulk of this work; trucked into an area for just a few days or weeks when a single crop is blossoming, they can be moved in their hives to more fertile pastures when the orchards and fields turn into a barren wasteland. Not so the bumblebees, solitary bees, moths and butterflies who have suffered a sharp decline as a result of modern farming practices.
US farmers have already warned Congress that they are being forced to reduce their acreage of crops because of a shortage of honeybees for pollination and the subsequent rising cost of renting hives. Colony collapse disorder (CCD), the term used to describe the mysterious wipeout of more than a third of US honeybees - a million this year, 800,000 the year before - has not yet been confirmed in Britain.
Wet weather, the varroa mite and inappropriate controls to reduce the parasite are being blamed for our bee decline.
Whatever the causes, how long before the yields from British apple orchards are affected?
We could just import more food, but with honeybees dying on a similar scale around the world, our global food production is far from secure. Better to find the culprit. But that entails spending more money on research, something the UK government seems loath to do as made clear by its response to a petition backing the British Beekeepers' Association (BBKA) call for £8m over five years to "fund scientific research into maintaining UK bee stocks".
But measures could be put in put in place now that don't cost anything, most importantly tighter pesticide controls. EU agriculture ministers have backed proposals for more stringent safety tests on pesticides including extra safeguards to ensure chemicals are not toxic to bees. Britain was one of the few countries that abstained from agreeing to this plan despite current tests being woefully inadequate for protecting honeybee colonies. Researchers have found that widely used pesticides can interfere with honeybees' sophisticated communication systems and impair memory. They have not been ruled out as one of the factors contributing to CCD in the US. British farmers warn that tighter controls could destroy their crop production - a view not shared by their European counterparts. Although the National Farmer's Union supports the BBKA's campaign for more government funding of bee research, it would do better to throw its weight behind stricter pesticide testing. The very chemicals it wants to save could be the ones aiding the destruction of honeybees which we need as much as the sun and rain to make their crops - and our food - grow.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008