Science Interviews

Interview

Wed, 24th Jun 2009

The Plight of the Bumblebees

Bridget Nicholls, Pestival
Pat Goodwin, Wellcome Trust
Steve Benbow, the London Honey Factory

Listen Now    Download as mp3 from the show The Future of our Food

Helen -   Another issue that's been hitting the headlines lately, is that of the plight of our beloved bees.  So we sent Meera Senthilingam down to London, to The Wellcome Trust to find out what all the buzz is about.

Bee CabMeera -  This week saw the unveiling of a taxi dressed up as a bee, driving around the streets of London.  Now, why is a taxi dressed like a bee, you ask?  Well, this bee cab has been custom made to celebrate Pestival.  A festival that celebrates insect life which is taking place on London South Bank this coming September.  And the theme for this year's festival is a collapse of bee colonies around the world.  Bridget Nicholls is the festival director.

Bridget -  The key theme of this year's Pestival is bees - We're creating the Queen Elizabeth Hall we'll be turning into the Queen Bee hall and is going to be called, 'The Bee Social' and it's all about people coming together from different disciplines to discuss colony collapse and creating a critical mass.  I just think that it's very important to get urban people thinking about saving the bees because they've got balconies, they can plant flowers for urban bees.  I think we are in danger of loosing our bees and obviously, we should do something about it while we can.

Meera -  Festival Director and organizer Bridget Nicholls.  This plight of bees is a theme well-chosen as bee populations have been decreasing at an alarming rate in recent years, with bumble bees in the U.K. estimated to have fallen by 60% since 1970 and in some parts of the country, honey bees by up to 80%.  The repercussions of this disease are enormous with the bees pollination services, having a commercial and economic value of around 20 to 50 billion pounds worldwide, as bees don't just make honey, but they pollinate more than 90 of the flowering crops we rely on for our food sources.

Wellcome Trust Scientist, Pat Goodwin explained why these services are so valuable.

Pat -  Fruits won't ripen, we won't get flower seeds without having pollination which actually fertilizes the seeds so that they can grow into fruits.  Apples, pears and all the flowers that we love in our gardens, they depend on pollinators as well.

Group of feeding bumblebeesMeera -  So no more apples, pears or pretty flowers?  Pat told me more about why these decrease is thought to be happening.

Pat -  Nobody really knows the answer.  There are lots of theories.  One thing is climate change which is the warmer winters are affecting bee hibernation for example and upsetting their whole, sort of, life cycle.  There's new pathogens coming up, the Varroa mite, but it's not just the Varroa mite.  It carries viruses, so it lives on the bees, but it also transmits viruses between bees, then there's lots of issues around modern agriculture. Whereby you have vast fields which are then harvested, so there's nothing left for bees to pollinate and because they use the nectar and then take it to their hives and make it into honey.  Another thing I think, is probably in breeding, bees have been bred to be non-aggressive and to produce lots of honey, and that is probably meaning that they're loosing some genes which are important for their vitality.

Meera -  Now a buzz word at the moment, thought to be causing some of the big falls in population numbers is colony collapse disorder, where entire colonies are dying and disappearing for no known reason.  This has happened on a larger scale in the U.S. but is increasingly happening worldwide.  Bee keeper Steve Benbow has over 350 commercial hives nationwide.  So I ask how this plight in bee numbers has affected his trade and if his hives have experienced colony collapse.

Steve -  We don't really see that directly at the moment, but we do see trouble from say, Varroa, a parasitic mite that latches on to the bees and this brings in lots of other diseases such as cloudy wing virus.  It causes a deformity in the wings. The diseases we have to keep on top off and trying to sort of learn new techniques, things like icing sugar is a very good way of managing the Varroa which at the moment is being trialed where the bees do what we call a hygienic behavior, where they're cleaning themselves and hopefully, knocking off the mites and cleaning and grooming each other to help reduce this terrible infestation that can take place.

MVorroa miteeera -  So bee keepers like Steve Benbow are finding new ways to get around these problems.  But is getting around these diseases in honey bees, enough?  What about the other species being affected?  Well, April 2009 saw the launch of the Insect Pollinator's Initiative by 10 million pounds donated by many U.K. funders, including the Wellcome Trust and Natural Environment Research Council will be used to try and understand the decrease in bee populations.  Pat Goodwin told me how the initiative plans on doing this.

Pat -  What we hope to do is to bring together researchers in different fields to look at all these complex interactions and if we can understand what is underlying the issues facing bees, we might be able to do something about stopping it.

Meera -  So whilst researchers are trying to find out the causes and the cure to this problem, why not find out a bit more about it or even learn how to keep bees as a hobby, at this year's Pestival, taking place from the fourth to the sixth of September at the South Bank Center in London.

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