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Posted: 10 March 2016 by Lynne Ingram, Master Beekeeper

A Beekeeping Tale of Woe

It was a beautiful day in mid-June with perfect foraging weather - the sun was shining and 14 of my colonies were next to a field of beans in full flower.

I had inspected them a couple of days before – and they were working hard. I expected a great crop coming in from these big production colonies.

So I was surprised as I drove up to the hives, to see hardly any bees in the air. I suited up and approached the hives, noticing a terrible smell that got worse as I got closer to them. As I went round to the front of the hives I saw mounds of dead (and rotting) bees in front of every hive – each one with their tongue out. Inside some hives I found trembling and paralysed bees – a result of damage to the nervous system caused by contact with pesticide spray.

I knew that the farmer had sprayed the beans in the previous two days as he had phoned to tell me a few hours beforehand. He had assured me however that he would not be spraying before 9pm – something we had discussed before I put the bees on the farm that year, due to a ‘near-miss’ incident the year before.

Collecting evidence
Pesticide poisoning was the likely cause of these bee deaths, so I contacted Eleanor Burgess (SBI), Simon Jones (RBI), and the NBU, as well as texting photos to the farmer, sprayer and agronomist.

I also took photos of the dead bees, hives, location, crop, and the next day came back to collect samples of bees from each hive. As beekeepers we are advised to collect 3 x samples of 200 bees (about a large matchbox full) from each colony in the case of poisoning incidents. These need to be labeled and put into the freezer.

Eleanor came to inspect the hives in order to rule out disease as a cause of death, and wrote a detailed report. She advised me to send off my samples to the Wildlife Investigation Unit (WIU) for laboratory analysis. These should be sent in a cardboard box (eg matchbox) and not wrapped in plastic. You will need to keep the rest of the samples in the freezer in case further investigation is needed following WIU analysis. With hindsight it would also have been useful to gather and freeze samples of the crop that had been sprayed, and also to send in an apiary plan to guide laboratory analysis.

Both Eleanor and I were contacted by Natural England (NE), who advised us that they were going to fully investigate the case. A NE wildlife advisor came down and we spent time visiting the site, and going through the details of the incident. I had by then gathered details of the chemicals sprayed on the crops, and gave details to the advisor, along with photos etc.

The beans had been sprayed with a tank mix of two pesticides (Lambda-cyhalothrin, Aphox,) a fungicide (Boscalid) plus trace elements. In addition the neighbouring fields had been sprayed with another fungicide (Prothiacanazole) six times in the week before. Recent research has found that ‘azole’ fungicides can have a synergistic effect on pesticides increasing their toxicity up to 550 fold.
After this flurry of activity there was a gap of four months before I heard anything about the analysis, but meanwhile I was busy trying to save the remaining bees.

The bees
The flying bees had died– but the house bees and brood were at that stage still alive. I decided to ‘shook swarm’ each colony onto fresh foundation and feed heavily with 1:1 syrup. This was because both the wax and pollen were likely to have been contaminated by the pesticides, causing lethal or sub lethal problems for the remaining bees

I made up hundreds of new frames with foundation, prepared clean hives and gallons of syrup. I also moved the colonies back home, and spent time trying to nurse them back to health, but gradually they dwindled away, going from from double brood boxes to single, then to nuc boxes. The queens went off lay and died. My honey crop was non -existent, as I did not have the bees to take advantage of any honey flows. The farmer accepted responsibility for the incident and suggested I claim against his insurance, but as yet I have not received any compensation.

The Investigation
The Wildlife Incident Investigation Service (WIIS) is held up nationally and internationally as a flagship organization protecting our wildlife. It involves the collaborative work of four separate organisations. It is led by the Chemicals Regulation Directorate (CRD), formerly the Pesticides Safety Directorate. They are the 'Competent Authority' for the approval and regulation of pesticides and some other chemicals. Natural England (NE) manage the Scheme on the behalf of CRD and undertake site enquiries into pesticide exposure and, Fera Science Ltd (FERA) carry out pesticide analysis and, if appropriate, the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) carry out post mortems on wildlife. At FERA the Wildlife Incident Unit (WIU) will analyse samples for pesticides, and give an interpretation of the result based on information from the agencies involved. In the case of bee poisoning, the bee inspectors inspect the bees to rule out disease as a cause of death, and issue an incident number. Following a recent re-organisation within FERA the NBU play no other role in the investigation. This now means that suspected bee poisonings are investigated by people with scant knowledge of bees or beekeeping practice.
In my case the NE investigation was minimal - the ‘investigator’ rang the farmer, found that he was unavailable, and never tried again. That was all that was done. I had supplied names, addresses and spray sheets, but there was still a lot more to find out
In time, results came though from the laboratory, which revealed that the majority of bees analysed had been in contact with the tank mix sprayed, in addition to other pesticides and fungicides. The investigator seemed unable to interpret or explain the results accurately or realistically – unable to tell me how many samples were analysed, whether they were analysed separately, and what the results meant. However, undeterred by this lack of understanding, he simply decided to close the case. I contacted the lab myself, and they were able to provide me with full details of what had been found on each colony. I have continued to liaise directly with the lab to try and get a full understanding of what killed the bees.

I have been shocked and disappointed by what has happened to my bees, but especially by the lack of investigation done by NE. This year there were record numbers of suspected bee poisoning incidents – and as in previous years, most cases were closed – not surprising of course if the level of investigation in my case is typical. It is essential that Beekeeping Inspectors are involved in these investigations – they know bees and beekeeping practice.

The BBKA are planning a new online ‘Bee Connected’ project – a sort of online spray liaison scheme. But if there are no appropriate resources to investigate incidents properly or to act on incorrect usage of chemical sprays, then our bees will continue to be poisoned, and we will never know the real level of this in the UK. In the absence of proper evidence, the use of toxic chemicals on flowering crops will continue to kill our bees.

Be Prepared
• Let your Spray Liaison Officer (Chris Harries 01823 442734) know where your hives are situated.
• Let the landowner know where your hives are and give them your full contact details. Discuss with them when best to spray their crops in order to protect your bees, and ask them to give you notice of this.
• BBKA have a useful leaflet to give to the landowner – Honeybees and Pesticides:
• The Crop Protection Association produce a useful booklet for you to give to landowners – Bee Safe, Bee Careful.
• Eleanor Burgess (Seasonal Bee Inspector) 0777 511 9465