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The survival of honeybees is under threat from an unknown army of 20,000 beekeepers who keep hives as a hobby.
In a hard-hitting report today, the National Audit Office (NAO) suggests that unless these amateurs are identified and taught how to spot disease in bees, the country's food production capacity will be reduced. The urgency is reinforced by the growing popularity of the pastime, with about 3,200 people a year investing in safety suits and veiled helmets.
The pollination of fruit, vegetables and other crops is valued at almost £200 million a year and the biggest beneficiaries are English apples, which are worth £104 million annually to the national economy. Figures released by the audit office show that 90 per cent of English apple production relies on honeybees. Unless government inspectors find out who keeps bees, and where, they will be unable to prevent the further destruction of bees.
The plight of honeybees was part of an investigation into whether the handling of animal disease control budgets by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs represented value for money. About 30 per cent of colonies were lost to disease during the 2007-08 winter and the endemic varroa parasite now affects 95 per cent of hives. There are an estimated 274,000 colonies compared with 400,000 in 1960. The audit office is concerned, however, that the control of varroa is being hampered by the lack of colony inspections by the National Bee Unit, part of Defra. It is also unhappy that control efforts to date have failed to prevent varroa, which was not seen in Britain before 1992, from becoming endemic in 2006. The NAO suggests a new campaign by inspectors to persuade all beekeepers to join a national register. So far only 17,000 have done so. If that fails, it suggests that ministers should examine the viability of a compulsory scheme, similar to those in Belgium, France and New Zealand. It is also anxious that the Government should organise training for beekeepers to help them to spot signs of disease and to notify inspectors who can then prevent further loss of colonies.
At present inspectors identify about 80 per cent of hives with disease. Only a fifth of keepers report possible disease problems in their own hives. Another problem highlighted by the report is that the varroa mite, which feeds on bees and spreads viruses, is resistant to treatments that tackle infestation.
Some beekeepers are therefore buying supplies of oxalic acid via the internet. Its use is widespread within the European Union but is not licensed in Britain. Enforcement authorities have turned a blind eye to this unlawful activity because they recognise that the substance needs to be approved for use. There are concerns that if keepers dilute the crystals with excessive water it may cause a risk to human health and a burning sensation to the eyes or skin.
Edward Leigh, the Conservative MP and chairman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, is particularly concerned that disease controls are being undermined by the enormous number of beekeepers unknown to the Government. "Action to stem the very high losses of honeybees in recent years crucially depends on a regime of comprehensive inspections and treatment of colonies. At the moment, this isn't being done," he said. In January Hilary Benn, the Rural Affairs Secretary, announced an extra £4.3 million to be spent over the next five years on bee protection and disease research. Martin Smith, the chairman of the British Beekeepers' Association, who keeps eight colonies in Skelmersdale, Lancashire, said he was concerned that the extra money would be spent on leaflets and campaigns to persuade beekeepers to join the national register instead of vital scientific research into the underlying causes of the decline in colonies.