UK bees & beekeepers infographic

Here’s a quick go I had at producing an infographic using the free infographic creation website Piktochart. I was trying to present a few figures that give a quick overview of the UK’s bees and beekeepers – without including so many that it becomes overwhelming. I found most of the numbers via the House of Commons Library debate pack – The UK bee population.

The UK bee & beekeeper infographic by Emily Scott

If you can think of ways I can improve it from a design point of view, or better figures to include, please let me know! It’s impossible to be sure of the total number of bees or indeed beekeepers here. Membership of an Association and registration on Beebase is not compulsory and it’s also possible to be a member of an Association without keeping bees.

EDIT: Based on feedback I have added some figures for the Bee Farmers’ Association and Scottish Beekeepers Association members, to make it more representative of the UK. Membership figures were taken from the latest figures available on each Association website, apart from the SBA who sent me figures directly. The Bee Farmers’ Association has a nice interactive Location map of members – it’s fascinating to see how widely spread they are.

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How many honey bees are there?

How many honey bees are there?” – an answer for Quora

I rarely answer questions on the Q&A website Quora nowadays, on account of having no spare time, but I was asked to answer this one and it got me intrigued about whether any kind of data exists on this. Would anyone really have counted?

Well, it turns out they have… sort of.

At the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization website, FAOSTAT, you can download the latest 2016 data on the number of managed bee hives worldwide across 123 countries. The individual country data can be downloaded as a juicy detailed spreadsheet or the data can be visualised in attractive graphs for you at FAOSTAT – this tells us that there was a worldwide total of 90,564,654 beehives in 2016.

Production of Beehives world total 1961-2016

© FAO, Production of Beehives world total 1961-2016, Web address: http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/QA/visualize, Accessed: 05/01/18

But we want to know the total number of honey bees, not just honey bee hives. Of course the number of honey bees in a hive fluctuates during the year depending on the local weather, season, available forage and the health of the colony. The species or sub-species of honey bee will also affect how many bees are in a colony. I’ve seen vastly wide ranging estimates of how many bees are in a colony, but the British Beekeeping Association (BBKA) ‘Life in the hive’ information sheet says ‘In high summer about 35,000, dropping to around 5,000 in the winter’, so let’s go with that. As a very rough and un-mathematical estimate we might say around 20,000 bees could be in each colony. So 90,564,654 x 20,000, which my calculator says = 1.8112931e+12

But this number is only for bee hives that have been counted and the data supplied to the United Nations. The spreadsheet says the data is ‘Aggregate, may include official, semi-official, estimated or calculated data’. One can imagine its accuracy may vary widely from country to country! Unless anyone was clambering up every tree or chimney counting colonies, there will be many more wild colonies that have not been included. And the number of live honey bee colonies will be fluctuating all the time.

Despite the gloomy media reports about declining honey bee numbers, I hope these estimates persuade you that honey bees are not facing the same predicament as the Javan rhino (58-68 left). Indeed the long-term trend over the past half-century seems to indicate that the number of hives globally is increasing.

This trend was picked up on by Katherine Harmon in her 2009 Scientific American article Growth Industry: Honeybee Numbers Expand Worldwide as U.S. Decline Continues. She mentions an increase of 45% in domesticated honeybee populations over the 50 years of FAOSTAT data studied by researchers Marcelo A. Aizen and Lawrence D. Harder for their 2009 Current Biology journal paper (The Global Stock of Domesticated Honey Bees Is Growing Slower Than Agricultural Demand for Pollination). Yet despite this growth, it’s still dwarfed by the >300% increase in agricultural crops that rely on animal pollination. Aizen and Harder say, ‘The main exceptions to this global increase involve long-term declines in the USA and some European countries, but these are outweighed by rapid growth elsewhere’.

Production of Beehives: top ten producers 1961-2016

© FAO, Production of Beehives: top ten producers 1961-2016, Web address: http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/QA/visualize, Accessed: 05/01/18

We can see that over the past five years India, China and Turkey now take the top spots for bee hive stocks.

Production of Beehives: top ten producers 2012-2016

© FAO, Production of Beehives: top ten producers 2012-2016, Web address: http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/QA/visualize, Accessed: 05/01/18

Of course, now that I’ve attempted to answer the question it will probably turn out the questioner was asking an entirely different question. Maybe they just wanted to know the number of honey bee species there are. The first rule of answering any enquiry is to pin down what the question really is, as it often turns out to be something entirely different from what you thought. And sometimes the person asking isn’t entirely sure what they want either.

Anyway, Happy New Year!

EDIT: MerryBee left a comment below saying “Interesting article, Emily. Have you any idea while there seems to be no data on FAOSTAT for beehives in the UK after 1987?”

I’ve had a look too and found the same thing – for some reason our government no longer seems to be supplying the data to FAOSTAT. Which will make my global estimate even more inaccurate! The UK government does attempt to collect hive numbers through the National Bee Unit – according to their Hive Count page “Last year’s count indicated a total UK population of honey bee hives of approximately 223,000”.

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To bee or not to bee

I’ve not been writing lately because life has been busy – we moved into our new home in Truro (Cornwall’s only city, which the tourist board describes as ‘Our Great Little City’, presumably to lower expectations). I’m very lucky to now have my own little quiet back garden. It even has a pond – a water source for bees!

And yet I find myself in two minds about whether to bring hives here.

To bee:

  • The intoxicating sight, smell and sound of 40,000+ bees on a summer’s day
  • Physical and mental health benefits of spending time with the bees
  • Tommy can learn beekeeping too when a little older
  • Honey!

Not to bee:

  • Extra work and extra worry – potentially swarms may bother neighbours
  • Tommy might want to poke his hands in the hives
  • Could spend time gardening and building solitary bee homes instead
  • Honey bees may impact wild pollinators. Twitter users @Kath_Baldock and Patrick A.Jansen recently tweeted about Lise Ropars’ presentation at the Ecology Across Borders (EAB) 2017 conference, reporting that wild pollinator visits in urban areas decreased when honey bee hive numbers increased. I really don’t want my beekeeping to be something I do at the cost of wild pollinators.

A poster summarising Lise Ropars’ & her colleagues research is available at ‘Impact of domesticated honeybee introductions on the wild pollinating fauna in a dense urban habitat: the case of Paris

Should I carry on? Or take a break and focus on making the garden wildlife-friendly? I feel so conflicted.

Starting a new life with the help of bees

It’s certainly heart-affirming to read this story – a Syrian refugee who has found his feet in the UK through starting up a beekeeping project for fellow refugees and jobseekers here: Syrian beekeeper tastes sweet success with British honey bees. “Bees mean to me peace, mean to me safety” says Dr Ryad Alsous.

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Black bees on Countryfile – or are they?

I watched the Rame Peninsula Countryfile programme featuring British ‘black bees’ yesterday. It’s available to watch for five more days (only if you are in the UK though).

The show was keen to play up the romantic side of the Peninsula as Cornwall’s ‘forgotten corner’, a “well-kept secret best reached by boat”. They told us more than once that Mount Edgcumbe, a countryside estate in the Peninsula, was the location of Britain’s first ever reserve for the black honey bee (ahem that honour actually goes to Colonsay and Oransay – but never let a fact get in the way of a claim on TV). Mount Edgcumbe is however England’s first native honey bee reserve.

Ellie Harrison on Countryfile 10/09/17, Rame Peninsula, Cornwall

Black bees in Cornwall
The section on the black honey bees was presented by Ellie Harrison, who explained that a tiny population of these native thoroughbreds had survived in Cornwall since the ice age. Thought to be extinct in the UK by some until recently, it has been shown genetically that they still exist as a distinct sub-species of Apis mellifera, the European honey bee. According to Ellie, they are “hairier, hardier and way calmer than their continental cousins”. She talks to one of the directors of the black bee project at Edgcumbe, Nick Bentham-Green, and asks him “What’s the problem with hybridising?”, to which he replies that it makes a more aggressive bee. I’m not entirely convinced by this, having kept some incredibly sweet hybrids who would let me stroke them bare-handed like kittens. Perhaps it depends on what sub-species they are hybrids of.

B4/Plymouth university research
Nick told us more about a four year project which is underway, with researchers from Plymouth university looking at anecdotal evidence from beekeepers in the B4 group about keeping black bees. According to the beekeepers, the dark bees fly early, fly in wet conditions and don’t starve out in summer. For the first time this anecdotal evidence will be linked to genetic analysis to check how distinct black bees are in the region. See Plymouth University’s page ‘How do we protect our native bee species?‘ for more on this.

B+ for inspecting
We saw some inspections of the Edgcumbe bees being carried out by bee mentor Kathy Lovegrove and head gardener Lee Stenning. Kathy told us that she was looking for a dark queen, with dark offspring, without any gingery brown stripes from thorax to abdomen. They were also checking temperament and making sure the bees looked healthy, had food stores, eggs and larvae. The beekeepers at the Edgcumbe reserve are working to reestablish the breed, building up numbers of our native sub-species to protect them from hybridisation.

Although the bees being inspected looked dark, ironically the show kept cutting away to distinctly gingery looking bees on flowers. Many people on the British Beekeeping Association Facebook group commented that the shots of these bees were ‘library’ shots used for another programme earlier in the year.

Jo Widdicombe’s rare bees
The programme then went on to feature various other countryside topics, before returning to the black bees later (49 minutes in). This time Ellie visited Jo Widdicombe, who she described as a local ‘rare-breed farmer with a difference’, whose colonies have been found to be one of the purest strains of the dark honey bee in Cornwall. When his colonies were DNA tested, they were identified as almost 100% native black honey bees. It was these ‘genetically pure’ bees that kick-started the colonies at Mount Edgcumbe. He got one of his first sites on the Edgcumbe estate and has had them there about thirty years.

When Jo started looking at Edgcumbe bees, he realised they were quite different looking to his usual bees and had a very gentle temperament. He came across on the show as a steady and gentle man who’s doing good work to look after the bees, as well as providing an apprenticeship for a new beekeeper, Shelley Glasspool. Jo has since written a post for the Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders Association (BIBBA) about his experience filming for Countryfile: BIBBA Countryfile report. It sounds like a lot of the details he gave about working with the native bees got cut out unfortunately – “they just came back to their original storyline which included irrelevant facts like how long I had been beekeeping and how much honey I hope to produce”. 

What a shame that most of Jo’s footage got cut out. I don’t usually watch Countryfile but it comes across as quite a fluffy show, the One show of the nature world. I am not a scientist but would like to understand more clearly how the DNA testing for black bees works and how distinct they are as a sub-species. I know manual wing morphometry analysis is also often used to identify them as the veins within the wings of the black bees are supposed to have slightly different measurements.

Further reading

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Bees and Bee Boles at the Lost Gardens of Heligan

Today we visited the Lost Gardens of Heligan and saw the old ‘bee boles’. These are recesses in a wall big enough to hold straw skeps. The wall would have provided shelter and typically would have been south or east facing. At Heligan most of the boles have removable wooden doors in place. I would be interested to know how the wooden doors would have been used. I’m guessing they may have been in place over winter to provide extra protection from the wind and rain and then removed come spring?

The International Bee Research Association (IBRA) maintains a Bee Boles Register which currently contains records for 1589 UK sites, 58 of which are in Cornwall. So I have plenty more to find! And having just checked their Heligan Gardens record, it indeed says the wooden doors were closed in winter and hessian curtains added when very cold.

Skep making is a lovely skill and the skeps are beautiful objects which are still useful for swarm collecting. However I am glad the heyday of skeps has passed, since the bees were often driven out or killed in order for the beekeeper to harvest their honey and wax.

Bee hives were marked on Heligan’s garden map, so I was hoping to see some, but was disappointed to see a sign instead, informing me that the Heligan colony had died out over winter.

Black Honey Bee Colony, Heligan Gardens

There were several information posters about the Black honey bee…

The history of the Black honey bee

The history of the Black honey bee

Black honey bee better adapted

Black honey bee better adapted

European honey bees

European honey bees

B4 project

B4 project info

You can find out more about the B4 project at b4project.co.uk. They describe themselves as a “group of beekeepers whose aim is to protect the UK’s native honey bee, Apis mellifera mellifera.” A native dark honeybee reserve has just opened on the Rame Peninsula in Cornwall, as featured in a recent Countryfile episode which I intend to watch soon (8 days left to watch!). From what I read on the BBKA Facebook group, the beekeepers filmed for the episode were not entirely happy with the editing of the show and the final quotes used.

Black honey bee population wiped out

I believe the disease referred to above is a mystery disease that ravaged British bees in the early twentieth century, the cause of which experts have since ventured a guess at. It was first observed in 1906 upon the Isle of Wight. Beekeepers there noticed that their bees were crawling on the ground around their hives, dying so fast that whole colonies were wiped out at the height of summer, when they should have been most strong.

The devastating affliction reoccurred at least three times from 1906 to 1919. By 1907 the disease had wiped out most of the bees on the island – it then spread to mainland England and wreaked havoc there. Huge numbers of bees had to be imported from Europe, so much so that some beekeepers claimed our black honey bee, the darker British subspecies of Apis mellifera, had effectively become extinct.

Looking back at 1906, when the disease first emerged, there was a gorgeously sunny April, drawing crowds to the Isle of Wight beaches. This was followed by an absurdly cold May – frosts and temperatures as low as -5°C (23°F), even in London. It was too cold for honey bees to venture out, at a time when colonies were full of young, spring bees. This created ideal conditions for a number of problems and parasites to take hold – such as dysentery (diarrhoea) due to the bees being unable to take cleansing flights. Of course if bees begin defecating on the combs this can spread nosema, if it happens to be present. Acarine mites can also spread easily from bee to bee due to the number of bees squashed in together tightly.

Although investigations in 1919 revealed the presence of acarine mites in all afflicted hives on the Isle of Wight, leading to the mites being identified as the likely culprit, it’s now thought that the crawling behaviour observed was probably due to Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus (CBPV). It was in the 1950’s that Dr Leslie Bailey (who worked in the Bee Disease Section of the Rothamsted Research Station) first suggested that CBPV was spread by the mite, with many of the colony losses in the 1910s ultimately being due to attack by this virus.

Possibly the combination of unseasonably cold weather, CBPV and acarine mites was a potent one which proved too much for the bees. Diseases and parasites such as nosema, acarine and varroa may not always kill colonies outright, but can weaken the immune systems of the bees, allowing viral infections to take hold. We can’t know for sure what afflicted the bees back then, but the descriptions given by beekeepers at the time of crawling bees with trembling wings do sound like CBPV.

Anyway, I enjoyed my visit to Heligan and hope I can see some of the few surviving black honey bees soon, now that I’m living in the right place. Have any of my readers been lucky enough to spot them, perhaps in Cornwall or at the Black bee reserve on the Scottish islands of Colonsay & Oronsay?

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Wending my way west

I have a bit of news. A couple of weeks ago Drew, Tommy and I moved to Cornwall to be near family. Apologies to anyone in Ealing I didn’t manage to say goodbye to in person, in the end time seemed to rush by. Many kind-hearted people have helped me over the years since I first started coming down to the apiary and did the Ealing beginners course nearly a decade ago, back in 2008. I’ve enjoyed many a cup of tea in nice and not-so-nice weather, as you can see from the photos below. It was very sad to leave.

However, it is exciting to discover a new area, especially one so close to the beautiful briny sea. We have had an offer on a house accepted and at the moment my plan is to get bees in the spring once we are settled in. I may do a BBKA module exam meanwhile too to make sure I don’t forget everything!

We will have a little garden which I want to make as bee-friendly and generally wildlife-friendly as possible. It will be my first time having a garden of my own so I have a lot to learn. If any readers have tips for keeping bees in Cornwall, let me know. I want to join the local association here as I think that will be the best way to get some nice local bees.

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Our bees need you

A shout-out to highlight a crowd-funding campaign by Newbattle Beekeeping Association up in bonny Scotland: Our Bees Need You. One of the Association’s members, Malcolm, left me the nice comment below asking me to mention their campaign to raise money for a hut for their Bee Academy which will house their library and microscopes. Well, I’m a librarian and my surname is Scott so I couldn’t really say no! There’s a range of perks available depending on the size of your donation, including getting to see a demo Flow Hive.

Hello Emily,

I read your Adventuresinbeeland Blog with interest. I find your posts interesting and helpful. I am a member of Newbattle Abbey Beekeepers Association in Scotland. Our teaching apiary is in the grounds of Newbattle Abbey College. We have an excellent relationship with the college and the principal does all she can to support us. We have been offered a WW2 ex army hut to use as our meeting place and to house our library and microscopes. We are very keen to take up this offer but it needs to be refurbished and the Association needs to raise the funds to do this. I am writing to you in the hope that you will find this story to be interesting enough to include in your blog. We are trying to raise £25,000 through crowdfunding and we have made a reasonable start but we need to widen our net to get our story out in the hope that those interested in beekeeping might be persuaded to contribute to our crowdfunding effort. To find out more please visit our campaign page at:

http://www.chuffed.org/project/our-bees-need-you

We attempt in our story to emphasise the importance of the honey bee in pollination of our food crops and how the Association is instrumental in training the next generation of beekeepers. Our proposed Bee Academy will help us to do this.

I do hope our story will interest you and that you will be able to give us a mention in the next posting of your blog.

Warm regards,

Malcolm Evans

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