North East beekeeper says decline review is 'crucial'

Aranda Rahbarkouhi talks to a North East beekeeper about the Government's review of the bee decline

Brian Ripley, vice chairman of the Alnwick and District Beekeepers' Association
Brian Ripley, vice chairman of the Alnwick and District Beekeepers' Association

A beekeeper in the region has welcomed the Government’s ‘urgent’ review into the decline of the bee population and says it is crucial for the survival of the species.

Brian Ripley, vice chairman of the Alnwick and District Beekeepers’ Association is currently helping to educate and train the next generation of beekeepers.

Ripley says the Government’s review is good news for hundreds of beekeepers in the North East, but claims more work needs to be done.

According to Defra, there are about 40,000 honeybee-keepers in the UK with more than 200,000 colonies of honeybees. About 300 are commercial beekeepers who manage around 40,000 colonies.

However, there has been a recent decline in pollinators – including butterflies, moths and bees – because of disease, environmental factors and climate change.

Ripley said: “The review is absolutely crucial because pollinators are responsible for one in three mouthfuls of food.

“They are responsible for all the things you like to eat, the plums, the apples, the pears. The things that make your diet pleasant. If you want bland unattractive food you could still survive on the potatoes, the wheat, the maise, but if you want the variety – you need the pollinators.”

The new review will look at current policies, the evidence on what is happening to pollinators and what action charities and businesses are taking to help the insects, Environment Minister Lord de Mauley announced.

The work will identify what needs to be done to help bees and other insects, and will form the basis of a “national pollinator strategy“ which will bring together all the initiatives already under way and help develop new action.

de Mauley told a Bee Summit organised by Friends of the Earth: “We must develop a better understanding of the factors that can harm these insects and the changes that government, other organisations and individuals can make to help.”

The Government has come under fire for opposing European moves to ban “neonicotinoid“ pesticides which have been linked to bee declines, but Lord de Mauley said bees would be vulnerable with or without restrictions on insecticides.

He said: “I do not deny for a moment that it is important to regulate pesticides effectively and to avoid unnecessary pesticide use.”

He added: “Changes in land use, the type of crops grown, alien species, climate change – these all have an impact. The relative importance of these factors and their interactions is not well understood.”

The review will begin with the launch of a report on current government policy and initiatives in England, while in September a series of workshops will bring experts together to discuss the issue.

And independent experts will look at the evidence on the state of UK pollinating insects.

Brian Ripley said the effects of the decline are potentially very serious for farming and the environment.

He said: “Experts at a European level think that it’s the use of neonicotinoids that is having an impact on bees.

“I think the UK Government’s position via the national bee unit, is that this is not necessarily the case. The evidence doesn’t stack up.

“The British Beekeeper’s position is that if we could get definitive proof that it was pesticides - and specifically neonicotinoids - then there should be a ban.

“There is definitely a question mark over the use of pesticides. Certainly at a European level they have decided to ban them so work can be done to prove whether there is any improvement.”

Ripley added that habitat is a problem that also needs to be addressed.

He said: “Habitat is obviously a problem if you link habitat with weather. If you look at the last three years of summers, such as last year, the weather was hopeless.

The previous two years, the weather was awful from July onwards. We were feeding bees in July because it was so wet in July and August that the bees weren’t going out foraging.

“If the queen stops laying because there’s no food coming in, then obviously the number of bees will get less and less. Eventually there will not be enough bees to keep the brood warm when the queen decides to start laying again.

“So physically there is just not the number you need and consequently the hive fails when you get to February – that’s the most dangerous time. So weather is absolutely crucial in late summer.”

But Ripley added that it isn’t all bad news for the North East.

He said: “We don’t have the same habitat problem that they have in other parts of the country because in the North East we’ve got an awful lot of countryside with plenty of fields and trees - we are particularly fortunate in those areas. It’s just our weather isn’t as good!”

Ripley believes that part of the problem with the bees’ decline is because of the parasitic varroa mite.

Ripley said: “There are probably very few wild colonies now because of the varroa mite.

“This mite introduces viruses into the hive which slowly weakens the colony - and if you don’t treat for varroa, within two to three years that colony is dead - which is what’s killed off a lot of the wild colonies.

“It’s a worldwide threat and if truth be told - the varroa is probably working behind our backs and weakening colonies all the time.

“At the moment, beekeepers in the North East are generally not doing too bad compared to last year because the weather has been so good over the last six or seven weeks.

“If this half-decent weather holds, and we have a normal summer we will go into the winter much stronger.

On a personal note, Ripley said he’d doubled the number of colonies he’s be looking after to 20 by breeding them in the the last few weeks. These hives contain an average of around 70,000 bees each.

He said: “Although those colonies are not strong enough to go through the winter, we hope that if the weather continues to hold we will build them up well enough to survive the winter - but the weather really is the crucial part.”

In North Northumberland alone, there are around 120 beekeepers, along with around 100 in Newcastle and more in Hexham. Ripley admits there are a lot of beekeepers in the North East – but he claims that’s nowhere near enough in reality.

To try and grow the North East’s number of beekeepers, a new 10-week course - run by Ripley - is due to start in October at Ashington High School Sports College, Northumberland.

He said: “The whole object of Alnwick beekeepers is to actually train beekeepers.

“We’ve got an apiary and people come along and we put them in bee suits and wellies, we then spend all summer showing them beehives and talking about beehives.

“Running the course in the winter is all part and parcel of that objective. More beekeepers is what the region needs.”

Friends of the Earth’s executive director Andy Atkins said: “We’re delighted that enormous pressure for a Bee Action Plan from scientists, businesses and the public has stung the Government into action.

“We all agree prompt measures are needed to tackle all the threats bees and other pollinators face, but an urgent and comprehensive route map and timetable are needed to ensure this happens.

“The Minister’s plan of action must be in place when bees emerge from hibernation next spring - we can’t afford to gamble any longer with our food, countryside and economy.”

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