Black bees in Pont de Montvert, Lozere. Image Credit: AFP

Though puffs of smoke and behind a full-face mask of mesh, Martin Smith is happily tending to his hives in Skelmersdale, a small town in the Lancashire countryside that was mentioned first in the Doomsday Book back in 1086, shortly after the Norman conquest of England.

History too will tell you that man has had a taste for honey from the time he first became a hunter and gatherer, and there are depictions of beekeepers through Pharaonic times in hieroglyphic script. And it wasn’t too long before man figured out that honey was a natural antiseptic too.

But Smith, a man who has held all sorts of senior posts with the British Bee Keepers Association and is the spokesperson for the group now, is more concerned with keeping his present pastime thriving into the future.

“There are about 25,000 beekeepers in Britain now, and we would estimate there’s another three or four thousand who are not members plus about two hundred members of the Bee Farmers Association,” he tells Weekend Review. And yes, size does indeed matter when it comes to the difference between bee keeping and bee farming, with most keepers having a couple of colonies — Smith keeps 10 — and farmers have a hundred and more colonies.

“Across the United Kingdom there are not that many full-time bee farmers — between 20 and 40, something like that — but nothing like the numbers you would get in the warmer climes of southern Europe,” he says. “In the UK, it tends to be that beekeepers do it as a hobby.”

For hobbyists or farmers alike, what is creating a buzz now for all is a decision by the European Union (EU) to ban neonicotinoids, with the near total prohibition on the pesticides coming into effect at the end of the year — and then they can be used in confined greenhouse environments only.

Neonicotinoids represent a quarter of the global pesticide market but have been repeatedly linked to serious harm in bees in lab-based studies. Bees and other pollinators are vital to food production but are in decline, in part due to loss of habitats and disease. They pollinate three-quarters of all crops, and an alarming decline in the numbers of pollinators over the past decade has been blamed, in part, on the widespread use of pesticides, particularly those in the neonicotinoid family.

“What actually are being banned by the EU are neonicotinoids, and these are distinctive from the older group of pesticides in that they are systemic — the seeds are treated and then the plant expresses the pesticide in relatively small quantities but it is quite toxic for the insect,” Smith says. “The danger is bees picking significant quantities. They are not being killed directly by these pesticides but there is increasing amounts of evidence that it is indirectly killing them — and that’s why they’ve been banned.”

Obviously, he says, beekeepers are in favour of that but are now worried about what farmers are going to use instead.

“We would not campaign for the world to go organic — there are plenty of people who would want to do that — but we would want to live with the whole of the farming community, and 95 per cent of that is conventional farming, and we have to work with them,” Smith says. “We have to know that whatever they are going to use instead [of the banned neonicotinoids] is not going to have a detrimental effect on bees,” adding that no one wants a return to the days of DDT and lots of aerial spraying.

So how bad are neonicotinoids on bees?

“I think it’s very hard to single out the effects of neonicotinoids against the general loss of habitat and other things,” Smith says. “You can’t specifically identify and say 20 per cent of the bee losses are caused by neonicotinoids or anything like that,” he says. “What you can say is it’s not doing them any good, and removing them is going to make the situation easier. But it is difficult to prove on a global sense.”

Laboratory studies are one thing — there had been few realistic field studies to date to address the role of the insecticides and only occasional evidence on the effects on colonies of wild bees.

And we are talking honey bees here, so let’s be specific here. Honey bees have four wings, five eyes and six legs. It’s the rear pair that have stiff hairs to store pollen when flying from flower to flower. The front pair of legs has special lots to enable the bee to clean its antenna. Bees also use the position of the sun to navigate and there is evidence of their sensitivity to the earth’s magnetic field.

Those four wings are hooked together to enable it to fly incredible distances, and it is pretty typical for most bees to travel eight kilometres a day collecting pollen before returning to their hive. A worker bee has a top speed just under 30 km/h but that drops by half when it is fully laden with nectar, pollen, water or propolis — resin collected from tree buds.

Bees’ eyes too are sensitive to polarised light, which penetrates through even thick cloud, so bees are able to still see the sun in poor weather. Those eyes are sensitive more to the blue end of the light spectrum and into ultraviolet, and flowers reflect large amounts of ultraviolet light and appear very bright to a bee.

And for the record, bees are totally blind to red.

“From a layman’s perspective, we are being encouraged to eat five servings of fruit and vegetables a day,” Smith says. “A whole load of people have said that if bees die out, then mankind’s going to die out. That isn’t the case. What we would do is eating the grey foods — wheat, rice, potatoes — that don’t require insect pollination. The crops that require insect pollination are the colourful foods — soft fruit, vegetables, things that provide a variety and make food interesting. That’s the real importance of bees and pollenating insects, and it applies to us and to berries in hedgerows that feed birds.”

Smith says the advantage of bees — and specifically honey bees — is that they can be managed so that they pollenate in bigger densities than they would be able to do as just natural pollinators.

“The biggest single reason why insects in general and pollinators in particular are under threat is the loss of habitat,” Smith says. “We are either concreting over or are tidying up or just planting grass over more and more of the UK,” he says. “What we have not got are the big expanses of scrubland and wild flowers — in places like hedgerows — and that reduces the habitat available for pollinators. That’s the key driver in the reduction of pollinators available, particularly when you look at the wide colonies.”

In Britain alone, if these pollinating insects went into decline, the health of the nation’s £100 billion (Dh493 billion) food industry at the heart its economy would be damaged. Without the service nature provides, some of that food would become a lot harder to grow and more expensive to buy.

The challenge, Smith says, is to be able to manage the habitat as best as possible to maximise opportunities for bees and other pollenating insects. “Acres and acres of grass is no good for any pollinators really,” he says. “Planting a wild flower meadow and looking after it costs a bit of money too.”

When the EU ban on neonicotinoids takes effect, some experts are worried that the exemption for greenhouses means the dangerous pesticides will be washed out into water courses where they can severely harm aquatic life.

Professor Jeroen van der Sluijs, at the University of Bergen, Norway, said neonicotinoids will also continue to be used in flea treatments for pets and in stables and animal transport vehicles, which account for about a third of all its uses. “Environmental pollution will continue,” he says.

Professor Dave Goulson, at the University of Sussex, said the EU ban was logical given the weight of evidence but that disease and lack of flowery habitats were also harming bees. “Also, if these neonicotinoids are simply replaced by other similar compounds, then we will simply be going around in circles,” Prof Goulson says. “What is needed is a move towards truly sustainable farming.”

But the EU decision to ban the neonicotinoids could also have global ramifications, according to Professor Nigel Raine, at the University of Guelph in Canada.

“Policy makers in other jurisdictions will be paying close attention to these decisions,” he says. “We rely on both farmers and pollinators for the food we eat. Pesticide regulation is a balancing act between unintended consequences of their use for non-target organisms, including pollinators, and giving farmers the tools they need to control crop pests.”

Other research has also revealed that 75 per cent of all flying insects have already disappeared in Germany and likely further afield, prompting warnings of “ecological Armageddon”.

The new data was gathered in nature reserves across Germany but has implications for all landscapes dominated by agriculture, the researchers said.

The amateur entomologists also collected detailed weather measurements and recorded changes to the landscape or plant species in the reserves, but this could not explain the loss of the insects. “The weather might explain many of the fluctuations within the season and between the years, but it doesn’t explain the rapid downward trend,” said Martin Sorg from the Krefeld Entomological Society in Germany, who led the amateur entomologists.

The cause of the huge decline is as yet unclear, although the destruction of wild areas and widespread use of pesticides are the most likely factors and climate change may play a role too. The scientists were able to rule out weather and changes to landscape in the reserves as causes, but data on pesticide levels has not been collected.

“The fact that the number of flying insects is decreasing at such a high rate in such a large area is an alarming discovery,” said Hans de Kroon, at Radboud University in the Netherlands and who led the new research.

“Insects make up about two-thirds of all life on earth [but] there has been some kind of horrific decline,” Prof Goulson explains. “We appear to be making vast tracts of land inhospitable to most forms of life, and are currently on course for ecological Armageddon. If we lose the insects then everything is going to collapse.”

The abundance of flying insects has plunged by three-quarters over the past 25 years, researchers say. Insects are an integral part of life on earth as both pollinators and prey for other wildlife and it was known that some species of butterflies were in fast decline. The newly revealed scale of the losses to all insects, however, is sounding those alarm bells — and certainly the EU action on banning neonicotinoids does help. The ban follows a widely-supported campaign, with almost 5 million people signing an online petition from pressure group Avaaz.

“Banning these toxic pesticides is a beacon of hope for bees,” said Antonia Staats at Avaaz. “Finally, our governments are listening to their citizens, the scientific evidence and farmers who know that bees can’t live with these chemicals and we can’t live without bees.”

Similarly, Martin Dermine, at Pesticide Action Network Europe described the EU decision as historic and added: “Authorising neonicotinoids a quarter of a century ago was a mistake and led to an environmental disaster.”

The world’s widest-ever field trial provided statistical and empirical evidence that the widely-used insecticides damaged the survival of honeybee colonies.

The farm-based research, along with a second complimentary study suggested widespread contamination of entire landscapes and a toxic “cocktail effect” from multiple pesticides. The landmark work provided the most important evidence yet for regulators around the world considering action against neonicotinoids, and the EU had previously banned their use on flowering crops across the 28-member bloc.

The negative impact found varied across different countries, leading the pesticide manufacturers to question whether the results of the research, which they funded, were real. The new research was published in the peer-review journal Science.

While the EU will cover off use of neonicotinoids in Europe, what about the rest of the world?

“There is a phenomenon in north America called Colony Collapse Disorder,” Smith explains. “This basically says we know bees are dying but we don’t know why. Huge amounts of research have been done on this and what it tends to point to is that causes and symptoms of what is happening in America were not really found in the UK. Some French beekeepers maintain that they had something similar, but in the UK, we really didn’t have that.”

The causes, Smith explains, are fundamentally different.

“Bee keeping practices are fundamentally different in the UK and most of Europe compared to the United States, he says. “They have a relatively small population of beekeepers who breed bees and their gene population is much smaller. Most of their beekeepers are commercial beekeepers keeping thousands and thousands of colonies and shipping them around the country. They over-winter them in the Nevada desert, then they take them in February to California, then they do the blueberries in Maine and they are trucked thousands and thousands of miles around the US and clearly that puts a lot of stress on them.”

He says that while not a lot of research has been done, the colonies in the US are being stressed in an artificial way, and there is a tipping point that caused them to collapse.

“European losses [of colonies] have declined and part of that may have to do with the bee keepers’ ability to deal with threats that have emerged,” he says. “The short-term threat remains stable; the longer-term threats are losses of habitat and ensure we don’t concrete over foraging areas. We need to allow a reasonable amount of forage area across the year for all pollinators — including honey bees.

For Smith, back tending to his Skelmersdale colonies, there’s a very real and simple pleasure in keeping bees.

“You’ve spent all day at work, on the phone, doing emails,” he enthuses. “You go home. You open up the bee hive. You’re calm. You can’t think about anything else. You’re looking at your bee hive. You’re trying to understand what’s going on. It sounds a bit daft, but you’re at one with your colony, understanding it. That is a great method of relaxing. That’s the joy of keeping bees.”

The knack, Smith says, is looking regularly at the hives, understanding what’s going on, preventing them from swarming and giving them enough space to grow as a strong colony.

“If you’re interested in collecting honey, well then you would manage the colony so it produces a surplus of honey, and then you extract that, bottle it and have it on your toast,” he says.

Nothing beats the flavour?

“Absolutely not — especially of your own honey.”

–With inputs from agencies

Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Madrid.