A group of beekeepers in Swindon might have found an answer to one of the huge problems facing the food production industry and the general health of our planet.
It’s estimated that 80 per cent of the world’s food production relies upon bees to pollinate flowers to develop seeds, fruit and vegetables, yet parasites are weakening bee populations resulting in the loss of many thousands of beehives each year. It’s estimated that on average 30 per cent of the UK’s colonies are destroyed annually and there is similar havoc to honeybee populations across Europe and the USA.
However Ron Hoskins and members of the Swindon Honeybee Conservation Group have been researching how to combat the problems the varroa mite infestation cause in beehives without resorting to using chemicals.
In 1994 Ron discovered a queen bee with a genetic mutation in one of his hives. It meant she was producing bees which were grooming each other to rid themselves of mites.
Ron said: “Since 1992 the varroa mite has become a major problem to beekeepers who now use chemicals to keep the mite infestation under control. To use chemicals is the advice of the ministry and chemical companies were keen on this. But chemicals cannot eradicate the mites; it simply means it is beekeepers’ intervention keeping them in check, but at the same time weakening the bees. Most feral colonies were killed by the mite.
“I’ve not used chemicals for over 20 years since finding that special queen and proved she had a unique ability to breed what I call ‘hygienic bees.’ Since then the conservation group has carried out a selective breeding programme of queen bees who lay eggs which develop into bees which have strong hygienic behaviour in their genes. From the original queen we now have well over 100 hives which have very low infestation because the bees groom each other.”
Since then members of the Conservation Group have examined hundreds of thousands of dead mites seeking the best hygienic colonies from which to breed so that they can improve the ability of bees to look after themselves. This has been widely reported amongst beekeepers and in the national and local media.
But Ron’s second discovery in 2015 has yet to be widely covered. Though varroa mites are parasites they don’t actually kill bees, but they do spread viruses amongst bee populations which do destroy them. “The main killer is Deformed Wing Virus (DWV TypeA) which is spread by the blood sucking mites which occupy the cells in the hive in which the queen lays her eggs,” said Ron.
“The adult female varroa, having already mated, enters the bee larval cell before it is capped over. There she lays her eggs and makes a wound in the larval bee’s body to provide blood for baby mites to feed off. As all bee larvae moult several times as they develop in the cell the adult mite must keep the wound open for her young. One of the baby mites is a male which will mate with his sisters and then dies.
“Bees have an acute sense of smell and by close observation we discovered that they were identifying the larval cells where there was an odour coming from the wound on the bee larva. Bees were removing these bee larvae from the hive before they fully developed and could spread what to them might be a disease.
“The Swindon Super Bees have been studied by virologists who declared that our bees have a Super Infection Exclusion Virus (SIEV) or DWV (TypeB) which means they are immune to the deadly DWV (TypeA) killer virus.
“The report of their research into our bees was published in the journal Nature and was featured in a ten minute film on the BBC in October 2015 presented by Chris Packham”
However, the pioneering work by Ron and his colleagues in the Honeybee Conservation Group is being limited in scope and even put in jeopardy because they have been unable to attract a government grant or support from universities. Although they are all very experienced beekeepers – Ron himself has kept bees for over 50 years – they are regarded as amateurs without the necessary scientific qualifications.
Ron commented: “The struggle to get funding, and for scientists to give us recognition, is really, really frustrating. We’re all unpaid volunteers and it’s amazing that, with the problems the world is facing from bee colony collapse and the implications that has on food production on the planet, we cannot get money to further our work. We’ve been to places like the National Environmental Research Council which is based in Swindon but have been turned down.
“Bees are now classed as ‘food producing animals’ but unfortunately we’re up against those who want to sell high-priced chemicals, or patenting and selling a vaccine. There’s no reward from breeding hygienic bees because you can’t patent a creature.”
Ron is supported in the Swindon Honeybee Conservation Group by Eddy Eggleston, Glen Head and Ron Hill. Ron has just had his eighty-fifth birthday and other members of the group are all over the age of 50. It is salutary to consider that their passion, expertise and skills could be lost if their discoveries are not developed further.
Sponsor a beehive and read more reports about the Swindon Super Bees at www.swindonhoneybeeconservation.org.uk
To watch Chris Packham’s BBC programme, go to www.youtube.com and search for Ron Hoskins, or click on the image below. All photos above by Richard Wintle of Calyx
• Ron has been keeping bees since he was seven years old. His passion for bees started at Kingham Hill Public School in Oxfordshire when he and his two brothers were evacuated from East London before the blitz started in the early part of World War II. A schoolmaster asked him to help looked after beehives at the school and on returning to London he helped look after colonies at his grandfather’s allotment.
He took a break during national service before getting married and relocating for work to the rapidly expanding Swindon in 1953, first to Penhill, then ten years later he and his wife were the first couple to move to the new housing development at Covingham where they still live.
How Swindonlink covered Ron Hoskins’ work in 2011
In an age of debate over the merits of pesticides and genetic modification, veteran bee-keeper Ron Hoskins of Swindon Honeybee Conservation Group has his own story to tell after almost two decades of scientific observation of bee colonies.
Ron’s work confirms that nature definitely knows best. He said: “At the moment, bee-keepers are advised to administer damaging chemicals into their hives to eradicate mites and viruses, which are such a threat to the global population of honeybees.
“But since stopping the use of pesticides on my own hives in 1995 I began to observe honeybees grooming their honeycombs to clean out mites.
“I then demonstrated that this behaviour is due to a genetic capability in the bees, and it’s this that I want to spread to make sure that bee colonies can be self-sustaining.”
It took 19 painstaking years of observation, recording and interpreting the data from his hives before Ron was confident that the evidence was pointing to honeybee populations finding their own ways to make their habitats hygienic and mite-free.
“I noticed that adult bees were ejecting baby bees that had been affected by the destructive verroa mite. I began to find the antennae of baby bees gathering at the base of the hives, along with the dented bodies of the mites. The evidence suggests that the bees have bitten into the mites and discarded them, along with the remains of the babies.”
In 2010 Ron’s discoveries made international news, and he is still on a mission to spread the word that pesticides are not required as long as hygienic bee stocks and specially bred queens are used to establish hives.
Addressing the Central Association of Bee-keepers in London in April, Ron explained his approach to apiarists. He said: “We need to stop using pesticides that leach into everything and stop the practice of culling drones, which is reducing the reproductive capacity of the bees in the wild.”
Ron runs bee-keeping courses at Stanton Country Park. For more information, mail: email@example.com