South Molton bee keepers warn of national ‘crisis’
- Credit: Archant
Local business joins the call for European funding to restock colonies following one of the worst winters on record for bee farmers.
SOUTH Molton bee farmers have warned the industry is facing a crisis this summer due to cold conditions and dwindling bee populations.
Owners of the Quince Honey Farm are among those appealing for European funding to help re-stock UK bee colonies – or face a future of empty hives and an increased reliance on imported honey.
On Wednesday, the North Devon business hosted emergency talks with industry experts from the Bee Farmers’ Association and South West MEP Julie Girling in a bid to secure financial backing to boost colonies that have been lost or weakened due to six years of wet summers.
Paddy Wallace, who runs Quince with son Ian said they could be looking at 50 per cent losses this year.
He said: “It’s pretty much a crisis; this winter would not have been such a disaster if last year hadn’t been so bad.
“A five per cent loss is usual but last year we lost 15 per cent and this winter we have lost 23 per cent and are going to lose more because the weather is still cold and the queens have been poorly mated.
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“We have 1,500 hives but as of this week we had 1,008 colonies. We need to try and split 500 hives from 1,000 which is not possible because the colonies are not strong enough to split.
“If we don’t replace stock and have another bad winter we will very quickly have no colonies at all.”
Son Ian said six consecutive poor seasons in the South West had hit honey producers hard.
He said: “Our biggest enemy is the weather; it’s been a horrendous six years.
“We had a bumper crop in 2003. It wasn’t great in 2004 but 2005 and 2006 were pretty good. Since then we’re had six really hard years.
“We have 24 tonnes of honey stored in the shed which is not a lot of honey for a business like ours. We have no surplus. If we have another year this year like last year we won’t have any honey.”
John Mellis of the Bee Farmers’ Association also appealed to Ms Girling, who has been selected as the Conservatives’ spokesman on agriculture in the European Parliament and has been leading the fight in Brussels against the decline of honeybees.
He suggested the industry needed a £1.4million injection to rebuild productive colonies, by importing queens from other countries such as Italy and New Zealand.
“It’s a huge logistic operation and we don’t have the money at hand,” he said.
“We’ve got a real problem with dead bees. Colonies have been weakened and because the queens have been poorly mated, half of our bees are not going to be viable this year.
“A five per cent loss is normal and 20 per cent would be a bad year. We could be looking at losing 40 per cent of our bees then suddenly we have a crisis – it’s a national issue.”
Ms Girling said she would speak to other MEPs to try to rally support.
She said: “All of the other European countries have similar problems in terms of stocking bees but I will speak to the minister to see if we can get any support for it.
“In terms of agricultural subsidies, £1.4million is nothing.”
Quince Honey Farm, established by Paddy’s father in 1949, employs 21 people and supplies honey to shops all over the UK although primarily in the South West.
The family business moved to the current premises in 1978, where it has since diversified become one of North Devon’s main tourist attractions. Last year, 42,000 people visited the honey exhibition.
Paddy said subsidies for bee keepers were no longer forthcoming and the business had diversified through financial necessity.
He said: “In the 1970s, bee farming was recognised by the Government as a viable agricultural industry and farm building grants were all available to commercial bee keepers. Now we’re not counted at all.
“Tourist trade accounts for 80 per cent of our business although we would prefer that a more significant proportion of our income came from the bees.
“We would like to do more with the bees, produce more honey and employ more people on the bee keeping side. There is potentially a very prosperous future for the industry.”
Ian added: “The industry needs help and it wouldn’t be to the detriment of anyone except for a couple of honey importers.
“We could easily keep 3,000 hives with some support. There are some well established honey farms and keen amateur bee keepers – we just need a little bit of support to help us restock.”