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Row threatens plan to save bees

Plans to save Britain's declining bee population have been thrown into disarray after a row broke out between beekeepers and government officials.

By Rebecca Lefort and Richard Gray
Published: 9:00PM GMT 30 Jan 2010

Bee: Row threatens plan to save bees

Bee's provide an essential service to agriculture and wildlife by pollinating crops and flowers Photo: ALAMY

The British Beekeepers' Association (BBKA), the country's largest beekeeping body, believes that money put aside for a 2.8 million Whitehall initiative to protect the health of honeybees is being misspent.

The organisation has now walked out of the management board set up to run the Healthy Bees strategy, which is aimed at reversing the decline in honeybees in Britain.

It comes as a new report by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology has spelled out the devastating economic impact that the disappearance of bees would have on the UK.

The insects provide an essential service to agriculture and wildlife by pollinating crops and flowers.

The report says that without them, many crops would need to be pollinated by hand, an exercise that could cost 1.5 billion a year.

If such action was not taken, farm income could slump by 13 per cent, costing the economy more than 440 million.

The latest research has revealed that managed honeybee populations in England have declined by 54 per cent in the past 20 years while numbers of wild bees such as bumblebees have also plummeted.

Now the BBKA, which has 16,000 members, claims that money allocated by the Government to the Healthy Bees project is being wasted on unnecessary surveys.

It has accused the civil servants behind the scheme of ignoring the views of beekeepers.

Martin Smith, the newly-elected president of the BBKA, said: "We agree with the aims, but there is no point participating when they are just telling us what they are going to do and not listening to what we have to say.

"Money is being wasted. It is not doing harm but it is not doing the good it could do."

The BBKA is particularly angry that 1.7 million of the Healthy Bees budget is being spent on a stocktake of the nation's apiaries, with another 13,000 going toward a separate survey of beekeepers.

The organisation wants more money spent on research, such as studying 'hygienic' bees which have a genetic tendency to remove dead or diseased larvae from their hives - making them less prone to infection from disease and parasites such as the varroa mite, which has caused widespread devastation of honeybee colonies.

Scientists have also cast doubt on the Government's efforts to tackle the bee crisis. Around 80 per cent of British plant species rely upon insects to transfer pollen between flowers to produce seeds and fruits, with the majority of the work being done by bees.

Dr Simon Potts, from the school of agriculture at the University of Reading, has revealed new findings indicating that wild bees such as bumblebees and solitary bees are responsible for the bulk of crop pollination.

But across around half of Britain, numbers of wild bees are lower now than they were before 1980.

He said: "About 90 per cent of our crop pollination is done by wild bees while only 10 per cent is done by honeybees.

"It is important that the Government doesn't concentrate too much on honeybees. Investing all our time in that will not save us if we don't pay attention to the other 250 species of bees we have got here in this country.

"Even if we manage our honeybees perfectly we will still have a massive shortfall.

"I think it is welcome we now have the Healthy Bees strategy, but it is quite a small step."

Experts believe that one key way to save Britain's bees is to restore the habitats that they flourish in. Since the 1930s, the UK has lost an estimated 97 per cent of its wild flower meadows.

In its report to MPs, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology recommends planting new wild flower meadows in towns and cities while also re-establishing such meadows in rural areas and along the borders of agricultural land.

"In my opinion, it is the single most effective thing we can do in the UK," added Dr Potts. "We have really good evidence to show that these meadows support not only honeybees but bumblebees and solitary bees."

A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: "We're disappointed that the BBKA withdrew from the efforts to implement our 10-year plan to protect the health of honeybees.

"The rest of the programme board, including the Bee Farmers' Association, Welsh Beekeepers' Association and National Farmers' Union, will carry on with the work in the interests of amateur and commercial beekeepers and we hope that the BBKA will rejoin later."