Central Sussex Beekeepers Association

A Division of West Sussex BKA

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Why we need bees

The once familiar honey bee is fast becoming a rarity, unless you live near a bee-keeper. There used to be many wild colonies of bees, living mostly in trees and old barns, but these have nearly all died and the bees now survive because beekeepers keep them in hives. Does it matter that bees are declining? Yes, because honey bees perform an essential job in pollinating a wide range of farm crops, vegetables, fruit and many wild plants.

Not only would the yield of many crops be greatly reduced, but many birds would have insufficient food to last the winter. In the UK, possibly because of our unreliable weather, most beekeeping is done by amateurs and there are only a few large scale professional bee farmers.

So why are we having difficulties with bees? There are far fewer beekeepers now than there were between the 2 great wars and the numbers have continued to decrease. Their natural habitats have been destroyed and much of the countryside has disappeared under bricks and concrete. It used to be far easier to keep bees; they are normally very healthy and disease-free creatures and need to be since a healthy colony can have a many as 50,000 bees in one hive! Many beekeepers could leave their bees alone for much of the time, they just had a look inside the hive in the spring, gave them some new combs and then just collected the honey at the end of the summer. Honey is mildly antiseptic and so is the ‘bee glue’ or propolis that bees collect from trees and shrub, these help keep the bees fairly free from disease. Unfortunately in the 1990s a parasitic mite (varroa) reached the West Country and has spread to all parts of the UK and Ireland. This creature attaches itself to the adult bee and sucks the bee blood. It also lays its eggs in the cell where the bee larvae are developing and the young bee then emerges already carrying the mites. The effect of this is to reduce the life of the bee, sometimes quite markedly.

In the mid 1990s many beekeepers gave up because of varroa but those who persevered learnt how to cope with the parasite. Now, however, it is getting more difficult to manage again because of two differences - the varroa has become resistant to the only 2 really effective remedies we have to treat the varroa and secondly the mites can transmit viruses. These bee viruses were always around but only at very low levels and a good healthy colony could keep them at bay. Now they have increased as they can be spread around the bees very effectively by the mites and there is no cure for a virus disease. The beekeeper can still keep their bees in good condition by a range of manipulations and treating with organic substances but it take more skill and perhaps a bit more time.

In spite of all these apparent problems beekeeping in Sussex is alive and well! It is a most rewarding and fascinating hobby and it is good that so many people still want to start beekeeping.