Bee Keepers’ Day part 3 – how the National Bee Unit protects our bees

A third post carrying on from my previous on last weekend’s Federation of Middlesex Beekeepers’ Associations annual ‘Bee Keepers’ Day‘.

Our final speaker was Mike Brown from the government’s National Bee Unit. He had very kindly travelled all the way down from York to see us. The Unit’s role is to protect the honey bee through carrying out research, inspecting hives across the country for disease and providing training for beekeepers. Below are my notes from Mike’s talk.

Mike Brown, Head of National Bee Unit technical Staff
The NBU function in protecting our bees and current research’

The National Bee Unit keeps around 200 colonies up in York and has 60 inspectors who work out in the field inspecting apiaries (many of these inspectors are part time, so getting round to all the apiaries is quite a challenge). Mike believes the NBU run probably the most comprehensive inspection and training programme anywhere in the world. He showed us a picture of some NBU hives with two brood boxes and seven supers, so they are obviously doing something right with their bees.

The NBU estimates that only 50-60% of British beekeepers are registered on Beebase – – their free website for beekeepers which provides a massive amount of free, and most importantly, authoritative and trustable information on bee pests and diseases. Registering tells the inspectors where you are and enables them to arrange an annual visit to see you. I wrote a post last year about our visit by Caroline Washington, our local bee inspector – A bee inspector calls. The inspectors are very helpful and just do a quick check that your bees are doing okay.

Caroline taking a sample last year from a hive – she was scooping up bees using a small plastic container. The bees are tested back at the NBU lab.

What issues do the inspectors find?

From the NBU’s point of view, varroa still seems to be causing most of the problems for colonies and is the most common reason for a colony dying off. Over the last few years there have been “tremendous problems” with wasps and woodpeckers. In the London area there is a high frequency of European Foul Brood (EFB) infection. Nosema apis, nosema ceranae and deformed wing virus (which is associated with varroa) are very common across the UK. Despite Nosema ceranae (an asian species of nosema, which is a fungal parasite) having arrived here more recently, surprisingly the NBU is finding more ceranae than apis!  The prevalence of both nosema species increases in larger apiaries, and they tend to be found together – if apis is present ceranae is likely to be too. Thankfully Kashmir bee virus (KBV) and Israel acute paralysis virus (IAPV) are very rarely found.

As well as looking out for pests currently here, the inspectors are constantly on the alert for new pests and diseases which might enter the country. Last year a swarm of bees attached themselves to a plane on a runway on Nigeria. Incredibly, the plane took off, stopped in Germany and finally landed in Britain, where the swarm of yellow African type bees were found still attached to it and still alive. After surviving that chilly trip, they were destroyed because they represented a disease risk to our bees here. The fear is that exotic pests such as the Small hive beetle and Tropilalaelaps mites will arrive in one of the many containers constantly entering the country.

The NBU have assessed that there is a high risk that one of the Asian hornet species, specifically Vespa velutina nigrithorax, will arrive here from France, become established and spread. It was confirmed present for the first time in Lot-et-Garonne in the South West of France in 2005, thought to have been imported in a consignment of pottery from China, and has since spread rapidly up to northern France.

Vespa velutina nigrithorax is anticipated as likely to have a moderate impact on bee colonies here. The reason it strikes such fear into the heart of beekeepers is that the hornet workers prey on bees, decapitating honey bee workers in seconds and feeding their larvae on their pulped bodies. Each hornet can kill up to forty bees a minute; 30 hornets can kill 30,000 honey bees in three hours. This very upsetting You Tube video shows it happening – the poor honey bees are tiny in comparison with their huge orange-faced attackers. In France beekeepers have had some success with hornet traps put out early in the season. The traps are specially designed to trap hornets only and release smaller insects. Preventing hornet colonies getting going early in the year seems to be the way forward.

A most unwelcome visitor.

A much cheerier picture below from a post called ‘The bees fight back‘ on the ‘Bees in France‘ blog. That appears to be a dead hornet lying in the hive entrance. Yay!

Previous posts:

Bee Keepers’ Day 1 – The decline of insect pollinators
Bee Keepers’ Day 2 – Improve your bees and beekeeping – simply

About Emily Scott

I am a UK beekeeper who has recently moved from London to windswept, wet Cornwall. I first started keeping bees in the Ealing Beekeepers Association’s local apiary in 2008, when I created this blog as a record for myself of my various beekeeping related disasters and - hopefully! - future successes.
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7 Responses to Bee Keepers’ Day part 3 – how the National Bee Unit protects our bees

  1. disperser says:

    Interesting. Like every hobby, always stuff to worry about. African Hornets; 40 bees a minute . . . scary.


    • Emily Heath says:

      The Asian honey bee, which has co-existed with these monsters for millennia, has developed a strategy for fighting back against the hornets. When the bees see a lone hornet scout coming to scope out their home, they lure her in by appearing to ignore her. Once the scout enters far enough in, the bees suddenly ball her, enveloping her in a mass of bodies. This both cuts out her oxygen supply and raises her body heat to a dangerous level. The bees can cope with heat levels a couple of degrees higher than the hornet can, with the result that she dies and fails to let the other hornets know where their nest is. Result!


  2. I don’t like to be speciest – but not liking the Asian hornet very much. Have been looking online for hornet traps for our hives this summer. Bad hornets!


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