Tag Archives: Bee keeping

More on historical honey bee numbers in Britain

Bees hives with earlier data points - 18th Nov

Following on from my post last week on historical changes in honey bee numbers in Britain, I decided to add the two extra, earlier data points to the graph just to illustrate what they mean for our understanding in how honey bee numbers may (or may not) have changed over the last 100 years.

The first data point is the Bailey & Perry (1982) estimate of 800,000 hives in the 1920s (which I’ve placed at 1929) that, as I mentioned, I think is wrong in terms of how they did the calculation.

The second data point is of 32,500 hives in 1919.  It’s from the article that Andrew Hubbard drew my attention to, which seems to be a fairly solid government statistic, or at least no less solid that much of the other government stats (unless anyone knows any better).

If we accept the 800,000 figure at face value then we see a massive increase in number of hives of over 76,000 new hives per year between 1919 and 1929.  And remember that’s being conservative as to what “the 1920s” meant to Bailey & Perry; if we peg the date at 1925 then we’re talking more than 127,000 hives being added to the British stock every year.  In my opinion that’s not a feasible proposition.

A much more likely scenario is that the number of hives grew during the second quarter of the 20th century and reached a peak in numbers at some point between the 1940s and 1950s.  That’s an increase of around 13,000 hives per year.  It’s still a lot, but is not unreasonable in light of post-World War 1, and subsequently World War 2, agricultural reforms that I highlighted in my post about British bee and flower-visiting wasp extinctions.   I’ve termed that “Jeff’s speculation” in the figure above because, in the absence of hard data, that’s all it can be.

As always, I welcome your comments.

 

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Historical changes in honey bee numbers in Britain – how much do we know? UPDATED

Bee hives figure - 12 November

UPDATE:  On Twitter, Andrew Hubbard kindly drew my attention to the short article from 1919 at the bottom of this post in which it was estimated that British bee stocks at the time were as low as 32,500 hives.  As Andrew pointed out, this means that the estimate by Bailey and Perry of 800,000 hives in the 1920s cannot be correct.

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In one of the chapters of the book that I’m currently completing I deal with the question of the evidence for changes in the abundance and diversity of pollinators over time, both in Britain and globally.  Are we really in danger of losing most of our pollinator species?  Have honey bee numbers plummeted?  Has pollination of wild and crop plants been affected?  The evidence is mixed and too complex to deal with in a short blog post: you’ll have to read the book 🙂  However I want to present some data that I’ve collated on changes in honey bee hives in Britain to gauge opinions on what has gone on.  I’m not a specialist in bee keeping by any means, others are far more knowledgeable, so as always I’d be interested in peoples’ thoughts on this.

The graph above has been pieced together from data presented in various sources – see below.  From a post-WW2 peak of about 450,000 hives, numbers dropped to about 150,000 hives in the 1970s.  That seems very clear.  Numbers remained fairly stable until the early 1990s and then….what?  There are two possibilities: either numbers of hives crashed to fewer than 100,000 by 2008; or they increased hugely to more than 250,000.  Both scenarios cannot be correct!

There are huge uncertainties about the data during this period, however the most recent data from Defra is fairly solid, though it does require beekeepers to register their hives on BeeBase.   Given the wide range of the low and high estimates, the fact that bee keeping has become more popular over the past decade, and that the recent data sit more-or-less within this range (at least initially), I wonder whether honey bee numbers have actually remained quite stable over the past 25 years or so, and indeed have hovered around the 150,000 hives or so since the 1970s.

Of course an alternative scenario is that the varroa mite (which arrived in Britain in 1992) led to that huge collapse in bee numbers.  But I wonder if there’s really any evidence for that?  Were whole apiaries wiped out by varroa?  It’s notable that the decline in this period started much earlier than the arrival of varroa, in 1985.  Why was that?

Data sources:

The earliest data available are those in Bailey & Perry (1982 – Bulletin of Entomological Research 72: 655-662) that span 1946-1982. This should be fairly accurate for England and Wales, though their estimate of 800,000 hives in the 1920s needs to be treated with caution as they make a number of assumptions in their regression-based analysis that may be incorrect; I’ve therefore not included that data point on the graph. Unfortunately the UK stopped returning official numbers of hives to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (UN-FAO) in 1977, and their data up to 1987 is an unofficial estimate (http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#home). From 2003 the UK had to report bee hive numbers to the European Union to claim money for the National Apiculture Programme (https://ec.europa.eu/agriculture/sites/agriculture/files/honey/programmes/programmes_en.pdf), but the figures were rather suspiciously constant between years. More recently beekeepers have been encouraged to register their hives with BeeBase (http://www.nationalbeeunit.com/) and hopefully these estimates are more realistic.

Data for part of this period were also presented in Potts, S.G. et al. (2010) Declines of managed honeybees and beekeepers in Europe? J. Apic. Res. 49, 15–22  Thanks to Prof. Simon Potts for sharing the data from that study.

Britsh Bee Journal 1919 - from Andrew Hubbard

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Bees and beer in London: an urban beekeeping experience

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One of our Christmas presents from Karin’s son (my stepson) Oli and his girlfriend Kate was an “experience” – a chance to spend half a day with an urban beekeeping collective in London called Bee Urban.  The group has a partnership with Hiver Beer which uses its honey in its brewing, and we were promised a tasting session.  Bees, beer, London – what’s not to like?  Karin and I finally made the trip down to Kennington yesterday and it was a really enjoyable experience, highly recommended.  I know a little bit about beekeeping but it was great to see a small professional apiary at work and to take part in a hive examination.  It certainly deepened my appreciation of these remarkable insects.  It also made me think about having a hive or two when I retire and have the time to devote to the hobby – beekeeping is not to be entered into lightly!  However there’s a time and a place for honeybees: in the wrong setting they can be a conservation problem by negatively affecting plant reproduction, out-competing native bees and passing on their diseases to bumblebees.

Bee Urban, however, is also doing its bit for wild bees in London by providing opportunities, such as drilled logs, for cavity nesting species.  We saw lots of evidence that leaf-cutting bees (Megachile spp.) and those that seal their nests with mud (various genera) were taking advantage of these nesting sites.

Interestingly, one of the other attendees said at the outset that she was very scared of bees.  I asked her afterwards if seeing beekeeping up close had helped and she said it had.  Perhaps this is something that you could do with any insectophobes in your life?

The beer was great, by the way, also highly recommended!

Below are some pictures from the day.  Thanks to Lena and Barnaby for hosting us and making it such an enjoyable experience.

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When she saw this picture, Karin likened it to cult devotees attending a ritual – “All Hail the Bee Goddess!”:

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Karin and I get up close and personal with the bees:

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A real highlight of the day – seeing the queen of this hive (marked in red):

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Yum! – :

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Drilled logs being used by leaf-cutting bees (Megachile spp.):

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