Stuart Bailey of Rowse, a leading UK packager and supplier of honey, says it has joined with commercial and amateur bee keeping associations to call for £8m in financial assistance from the government to research bee health and protect honey supplies and crop pollination.
Across Europe and North America in particular, bee populations are under threat, which is not only exacerbating the availability and cost of honey, but the pollination of crops such as oil seed rape and fruits and vegetables too.
Bailey told BakeryandSnacks.com that an estimated 25 per cent of bee colonies in the UK died last winter due to various climatic and disease issues, requiring immediate action from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
A spokesperson for Defra said it shared the views of stakeholders within the honey production chain, but could not act before completing its review of a recent consultation on a ten year bee health strategy proposal, which finished last Friday.
The department said that it expected its funding towards bee health programmes to remain at £1.3m for the year as its review continues. Defra did claim that it had provided additional funding of £200,000 for bee health research.
In excepting the vital role of bees in producing honey and pollinating agricultural and horticultural crops, the department said additional resources would be supplied to investigate issues like colony loses, but a clear strategy was required.
“What is most important is that we have a clear understanding of disease threats and how to tackle them,” the spokesperson stated. “That is why we are developing a bee health strategy which will set out the objectives and priorities for the bee health programme over the next ten years.”
Rowse fears that any delays could further endanger honey stocks particularly leading towards the Christmas period.
In working with groups such as the British Beekeepers' Association (BBKA) and the Bee Farmers Association (BFA), the company says it hopes to secure the funding to form an independent research organisation to focus on the wider-global issues of supply. The company itself has pledged to provide £100,000 to the focus, with further fundraising expected to take place from the BBKA and BFA.
At UK level, as with the US and other countries, research is underway at a number of universities into the current problems with honey supply and what exactly can be done to protect the species.
In the UK alone, Bailey claimed that a combination of factors such as the varroa mite parasite, wet weather during the spring that confined bees to hives and changing agricultural patterns were all detrimental to the industry.
He added that UK bee farmers provided about 3,000 to 5,000 tonnes of honey a year, amounting to a small fraction of the total requirements at consumer and industrial level for food formulation.
Bailey stressed that protecting international bee stocks therefore was equally important for the UK food industry, as it was to the major honey-producing natures themselves. Similar lobbying is taking place in the US, Canada, Australia, France and Germany, he added.
Global supply problem
Rowse says that these supply concerns have been reflected in current global prices for honey, claiming its own costs having risen by 60 per cent over the last year.
In Argentina for example, currently the largest honey exporter to the UK, a 20,000 tonne shortfall in output is expected in 2008 from over the same period last year. Poor weather at the end of 2007 and larger pasture areas of soya beans are thought to be the main contributors to the fall.
The US is also dealing with declines in its bee population due to similar concerns over diseases, and Bailey claims they are not alone.
“Following a disastrous crop in 2007 due to a long dry summer, the Eastern European crop is just starting,” he stated. “Australia continues to suffer from prolonged drought and is now having to import blending honeys for domestic consumption.”