Bit Of A Buzz Kill…

As you have probably noticed honey bees (Latin name: Apis mellifera) are doing particularly badly this year, I have only seen TWO this entire summer, and as they have been on the decline for a while now this is pretty sad news. Apparently their deterioration over the past few years is due to a decrease in resistance to disease caused by insecticides that farmers use on their crops. Other factors such as long cold winters and an increase in wet weather also affects them by causing a drop in pollen foraging, which means that the bees have fewer reserves and are again more susceptible to diseases and parasites. So the poor old honey bee is not having a very good time of it at the moment, but don’t fret, because YOU CAN HELP!

Honey, you're not 'pollen' your weight.

Honey, you’re not ‘pollen’ your weight.

(A very brief and bossy guide to helping our native honey bee.)

Plants with simple flowers produce a lot of nectar (as opposed to those with double layers of petals), and different plants are better for different times of the year.

Such as:
Early Spring – Pulmonarias and Primroses
Summer – Lavender, Veronicastrum (see photos below) and Echinops
Autumn/ Winter – Ivy
These plants are also good for other pollinating insects and bumble bees! Just look at those fuzzy bottoms.

They think it's the bees knees

They think it’s the bees knees

Foreign honey can contain pathogens that native bees are not resistant to, these jars should always be washed out and disposed of carefully so as not to infect any local hives. Buy locally sourced honey instead as local beekeepers are more concerned about their bees welfare than supermarkets are.

These chemicals are harmful to bees as well as the environment, soil, pets and people!

If you’re still not convinced that bees are worth your time, here are a few examples of parasites that poor Apis mellifera is plagued with.

1. The Varroa mite, (it’s rather appropriate Latin name is Varroa destructor). It is a small parasitic mite that is reddish brown and can be seen with the naked eye. It attaches itself onto the adult, juvenile or larval bees and SUCKS OUT THEIR BODILY FLUIDS. Due to the fact that the mite’s original host is the Asian honey bee, our European honey bees have no natural defences against it and if left to its own devices it can wipe out a colony in 2-3 years (BeeBase).

Honey bee with varroa mite. (Photo  Bees and Chicks)

Honey bee with varroa mite. (Photo Bees and Chicks)

2. The Nosema parasite (pronounced “no – see- mah”) can be one of two species, the native Nosema apis or the Asian Nosema ceranae, and it has nothing to do with noses. They are spore forming, single celled parasites and are transmitted faecal/ orally meaning that, especially during the winter months when the bees can’t poo outside because it’s too cold, they end up re-ingesting the spores and poor the bees develop dysentery (which is essentially, severe diarrhoea and abdominal pain). This in turn causes increased weakness and increased hunger which results in the bees being unable to collect as much pollen or eating more honey. A lack of honey means a decline in bee survival (Huang 2011).

The entrance to a bee hive covered in bee diarrhoea. Yum. (Photo: Huang 2011)

The entrance to a bee hive covered in bee diarrhoea. Yum. (Photo: Huang 2011)

3. Chalkbrood is a fungal parasite that is ingested when the larva eats and which then infects the gut. Internal competition between the fungus and the larva for food means that the larva normally loses and STARVES TO DEATH. Once the bee larva dies the fungus devours the body causing a chalky white appearance. It is particularly dangerous as its spores can stick around for years.

Honey bee corpses, the white ones have contracted chalk brood. Photo: BeeBase.

Honey bee corpses, the white ones have contracted chalk brood. Photo: BeeBase.

Honey bees are not completely powerless in this struggle for survival however as they have methods of protecting themselves from such unwanted house guests. Just like when you remove mouldy fruit from the fruit bowl so that the rest of the apples don’t start sprouting blue fuzz, bees remove diseased corpses or larvae so that the rest of the colony is not infected. Bees also go on “cleansing flights”, (if the weather is nice), in order to void their bowels away from the rest of the colony therefore avoiding possible re-infection (Evans et al. 2006).
This decline in honey bees is all together pretty serious; 27% of UK endangered plant species are reliant on bee pollination, the pollination of crop plants by bees is worth £200 million, and, all in all, bees pollinate 70% of the worlds food crops. Essentially, if the honey bees die out, so might we (Bee Guardian). Anyway, I’ll stop droning on now (see what I did there?), go out and save some bees!

BeeBase –
Evans, J D et al. 2006 Immune pathways and defence mechanisms in honey bees Apis mellifera Insect Mol Biol. 15(5): 645–656
Huang et al. 2011 Effects of Nosema on Honey Bee Behavior and Physiology American Bee Journal