Beekeepers have warned that most of the country's honey bees could be wiped out by disease in 10 years unless an urgent research programme is launched to find new treatments and drugs. They are to launch a nationwide campaign, including protests, to force the government to fund the £8m research project which they say is needed to save the nation's bees.

honey bee
©John Severns

Ministers say they have no budget for such a programme, a claim rejected by keepers, who are to lobby MPs, gather at the House of Commons for a protest meeting and begin a letter campaign to raise support for research funds.

'Beekeeping is still reeling from the varroa mite, which carries a number of viruses and which devastated thousands of hives across the country when it reached Britain 10 years ago,' said Tim Lovett, president of the British Beekeeping Association. 'Now there is a real danger that colony collapse disease - which has wiped out 80 per cent of bees in parts of the US - will appear in this country. Unless we develop effective protection, there could then be massive losses of bees across the country.'

There are around 250,000 honey bee hives in Britain and a recent estimate by the Department for Farming, Environment and Rural Affairs revealed that bees contribute £165m a year to the economy through their pollination of fruit trees, field beans and other crops. In addition, the 5,000 tonnes of British honey sold in UK stores generates a further £12m.

But, despite the importance of bees to the nation's economy, the government has said it has no cash left for agricultural research projects. 'If nothing is done about it, the honey bee population could be wiped out in 10 years,' the Farming Minister, Lord Rooker, has admitted in the House of Lords. However, Lovett said the minister had since written to his association saying there was no money available for a research programme.

'The pollinating of farmers' crops carried out by our bees is provided free of charge,' said Lovett. 'Over five years that work raises £800m for the nation. We are asking for an £8m research programme to save our bees to run for five years. That is 1 per cent of the money our bees generate.'

Fifteen years ago, bees in Britain were in a relatively healthy state. Then varroa destructor appeared in Britain from the continent and began infecting hives. 'The varroa carries viruses that can infect and kill hives,' said beekeeper Alan Johnston. 'It had a devastating effect on our bees.' Most estimates suggest about half Britain's hives were affected and, although there has been a slight recovery in recent years, the chemicals used to counter varroa are expensive and only partially effective, so the bee population remains in a precarious condition.

On top of this problem is the danger of colony collapse disease. The cause of CCD is unknown, but it has already spread to most American states and there have been reports of cases in France, Germany and Italy in the past year. Most keepers believe its arrival in Britain is now inevitable. 'We have to be prepared for that happening and to have some line of defence,' added Lovett. 'We need to know what is causing this disease and find ways to combat it so we are not completely exposed when it arrives here. At the moment the government is refusing to act and that is why we are launching our campaign.'

Keepers have also warned that the weather is now causing problems in many areas for bees. Bright sunshine has brought them into the open, but sudden cold snaps have caught many before they can return to their hives. The result has been large numbers of dead bees being reported around the country.