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Fears over honey bee populations after 31% fail to survive winter

Scottish death rates found to be among the highest in Europe by Strathclyde University researchers.

Honey Bees: 'Unacceptably' high bee hive losses in recent years.
© Wolfgang Hagele

Honey bees died at an "extremely high" rate during the winter months, researchers have found.

A survey by Strathclyde academics on behalf of the Scottish Beekeepers’ Association indicated 31.3% of managed honey bee colonies in Scotland failed to survive last winter.

The number is almost double the previous year’s loss rate of 15.9% and has added to concerns over the future of the country's wild bee populations.

Dr Alison Gray and Magnus Peterson, of Strathclyde’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics, warn the figures are of major concern because of the pivotal role bees play in crop pollination and agricultural yields.

Dr Gray said: "This is an extremely high loss rate. In fact, the loss rate last winter is the highest we have found since these surveys began in 2006, and is similar to that over the winter of 2009-10, when we estimate that 30.9% of colonies were lost.

"Results from European colleagues conducting similar surveys show that the loss rate in Scotland is amongst the highest in Europe."

Since the spring of 2008, Mr Peterson has been collecting data on wild honey bees. Over the winter, 11 out of 20 wild honey bee colonies known to be alive last September are known to have died.

Mr Peterson said: "The latest results indicate a low survival rate of just 45% amongst feral colonies over this last winter. This is the worst winter survival rate amongst the feral colonies known to the volunteers since they started monitoring them five years ago."

Worldwide, bee populations are feeling the pressures of loss of habitats, increasing numbers of pests caused by the globalisation of trade in bees and bee products and the possible adverse effects of agricultural pesticides.

Dr Gray said: "For bees in northern Europe, poor weather conditions, combined with these various other factors which impact adversely on bees, are certainly making beekeeping a challenge and survival difficult for honey bees generally.

"The difficult weather conditions are a particular problem in Scotland, with severe winters followed by long cold wet springs being a problem, especially if it comes after a poor wet summer as in this last year."

In April, Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead announced the Scottish Government was making £200,000 available to help commercial bee farmers to restock and rebuild their colonies, which were devastated by prolonged winter weather conditions.

However, the Government has been challenged by environmentalists after Mr Lochhead refused to follow many EU states in banning neonicotinoid pesticides.

Research has suggested the pesticide might be linked to a worldwide decline in bee populations, with some studies claiming exposure to neonicitinoids impacts the insects' ability to forage for nectar and return to their hives.

The Scottish Green Party has led a successful campaign for the pesticide to be restricted. The ban will come into effect in December.

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