In 26 years of beekeeping, Ged Marshall has never seen anything as bad as the 2008 honey harvest. A miserable summer that has confined his bees to their hives following a winter bedevilled by deadly viruses means that production this year will be barely a third of its usual level of around five tonnes of honey.
Unfortunately for the nation's honey lovers and apiarists, Mr Marshall's experience is far from unique. According to the British Beekeepers' Association (BBKA), up to a third of Britain's 240,000 hives failed to survive last winter and spring due to disease and poor weather. The result is a drop of more than 50 per cent in honey production across the country.
Rowse, the UK's biggest honey supplier, warned yesterday that the harvest has been so poor that major supermarkets will run out of stocks of English honey before Christmas. A global shortfall in production from Argentina to Australia has also driven up raw honey prices by 60 per cent in the last 12 months.
Mr Marshall, 53, who keeps more than 500 hives around the country from his base in Buckinghamshire, said: "Everyone is crying out for English honey but there is just very little of it around. Around now we are expecting to harvest heather honey but keepers are opening their hives and finding them virtually empty. The reasons are complex and very much include the impact of disease but the weather has been crucial this year.
"If you are a commercial beekeeper, being an optimist is a prerequisite but people are beginning to wonder how bad it is going to get. In a bad year, I would expect to lose about 10 per cent of my hives over winter. This year it was 30 per cent. I have a friend who has been through two dreadful years with disease and falling production levels, and he has said if next year is the same he will simply have to pack it in."
The dearth of honey this summer is due to a number of issues linked to changing climate and trends in agriculture which belie the bucolic image of beekeepers in protective masks harvesting dripping honey combs from their village gardens.
A soggy August following on from a late spring confined bees to their hives – honeybees do not forage in the rain – at a crucial time for honey production. The decision by farmers to profit from high wheat prices by increasing arable production has been at the expense of crops such as borage, used in pharmaceutical manufacturing and a prolific source of nectar for bees.
Along with a 75 per cent drop in borage planting, there has also been a general reduction in the amount of clover and meadowland available for bees. As a result, honey yields at the key harvest times of April to May, mid-June to mid-July and early September, which have been far below expected levels. Britons consume around 30,000 tonnes of honey a year – a figure that is rising by about 11 per cent a year – of which between 5,000 and 7,000 tonnes a year is domestically produced. This year the amount produced in the UK is expected to be barely 2,000 tonnes.
The problems have been exacerbated by similar difficulties elsewhere in the world. Argentina, the world's largest honey producer, has a 20,000 tonnes honey shortfall due to drought and pasture being planted with soya beans for biofuels while drought and hot weather in Australia and eastern Europe has already drastically reduced production.
The prospect of discerning consumers not having enough British honey to pour over their muesli by the new year might not seem much of a catastrophe.
But the poor harvest is symptomatic of a wider malaise which beekeepers and researchers believe threatens the long term prospects of not only the nation's bee colonies but the 25 per cent of the UK's food production that relies on crops being pollinated by bees.
The Government estimates that the nation's honey bee hives – most of them cared for by 44,000 amateur beekeepers – contribute around £165m to the economy by pollinating crops including apples, pears, strawberries, blackberries, carrots, broccoli, onions and oilseed rape. In short, much of British horticulture is reliant on the health of the nation's bees.
The problem is that they are struggling to overcome a far more intractable crisis than two miserable summers in the form of a small mite called varroa that attaches itself to honey bees and progressively makes them susceptible to lethal viruses.
Francis Ratnieks, the UK's only professor of apiculture based at Sussex University, said: "Historically, large-scale losses of bee colonies are something that have
happened periodically in Britain and it is easy to forget that. But colony losses of 30 per cent are worrying and it looks like it could be a signal that something is going wrong."
A combination of varroa infestation and associated viruses is suspected as being a key factor in Colony Collapse Disorder, the mysterious phenomenon whereby hives are suddenly emptied of their bees, which has claimed more than a third of the colonies in America and spread to Canada, Italy, France and Germany.
The phenomenon has yet to reach Britain but varroa has already taken a heavy toll on domestic colonies. The leech-style mite had previously subsisted at a low level on Asian honey bees but spread rapidly worldwide in the 1990s after crossing over to European and American species, which have lower resistance. To add to the problem, varroa has developed its own resistance to Apistan, the pesticide previously used to control its numbers.
John Howat, secretary of the Bee Farmers' Association, which represents the UK's 300 commercial beekeepers, who perform services such as pollinating fruit orchards, said: "Varroa and the loss of habitat has already all but destroyed our wild bee populations and now it is badly affecting our managed bees. The mite progressively weakens the honey bee and makes it more difficult for hives to get through the winter.
"Historically, we would expect a lost of about four per cent of hives each winter and spring but this has risen over the last three or four years. We are now at about 15 per cent this year and the losses for hobbyists are much higher. Wet weather means the bees stay longer in the hive which in turn means the varroa and viruses are able to spread more effectively. Our members are very concerned because we don't yet have a clear answer as to how to deal with it."
The Independent understands that such is the level of growing desperation to stop varroa losses among some commercial producers that they are using a treatment, Apivar, which is banned in Britain but legal in countries including America and New Zealand.
The BBKA, which represents amateur beekeepers, said it had recorded a loss of up to a third of hives among its members which could cost the British economy £50m in lost pollination and subsequently lower yields from food production. The result is a growing clamour for increased government spending to research the causes of the dramatic decline in the bee population and honey yields and develop a varroa-resistant honey bee.
The BBKA has called for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to increase its funding to £8m over the next five years. Defra said last night that it is giving £90,000 this year to investigate the high levels of colony loss and is developing a ten-year programme to improve bee health.
Other disastrous harvests
One of the best harvests in years in Britain has been ruined by weeks of heavy rain that has soaked crops and prevented farmers from operating combine harvesters. The National Farmers' Union estimates that up to half the crop still remains in fields.
Orchard owners in Cumbria, Kent, Shropshire and Worcestershire have reported a disastrous season with a knock-on effect for damson jam producers. Price rises of 300 per cent have been predicted.
Britain's pear crop will be 38 per cent lower this year after late spring frosts, and the European yield of 2.2 million tonnes will be the lowest in a decade.
French wine producers have predicted a five per cent drop in wine production to 43.6 million hectolitres due to the poor weather. Experts blamed a cold snap in late March and early April that damaged vines, unseasonably high rainfall and unexpected hailstorms in the traditionally warmer months.