Am Bratach No. 226
August 2010

North West is only area in UK free of bee parasite

Local beekeepers are urging vigilance to protect bees from their most serious pest, varroa mite, writes MANDY HAGGITH. So far, local colonies are free of the mites, but North West Sutherland is now the last place on the UK mainland to be completely avoiding infestation.

“Our varroa-free bees are now really precious”, says Claire Belshaw of Stoer, who has kept bees for fifteen years. “It is very important that we try to keep them free of these mites.”

Varroa destructor is a parasite that has caused the destruction of thousands of bee colonies in Europe. It arrived in the UK in the early 1990s and has spread rapidly. It is now described by the UK environment department as “the number one management problem for beekeepers”.

The varroa mites feed on the blood of adult and immature bees, weakening them, causing deformities and spreading various pathogens including viruses. Infested hives die out unless treated, but resistance to all but the most powerful chemical treatments is now widespread. Once a hive has the mite, its numbers can be controlled but it is almost impossible to eradicate completely.

Varroa is confirmed in East Sutherland, including Brora and Golspie, and in Ross-shire, including Ullapool. A hive with varroa has been destroyed in Caithness and an as-yet unconfirmed case has been reported in Lairg. But the north-west of Sutherland is so far free of the mite and beekeepers are determined to keep it this way.

The varroa mites are mobile, but they can only live for three days without a bee, so to travel between colonies they need to be transported, which happens naturally as bees “drift” between hives or deliberately rob other hives. However, a representative of the Scottish Beekeepers’ Association said: “Bees don’t fly across mountains or over big stretches of water — the movement of infested colonies by beekeepers is the principle means of spread over long distances.”

Unfortunately, the attractions of heather honey mean that some beekeepers from further south transport their hives to moor land at this time of year, bringing their parasites with them. Another bee disease, called Foul Brood, is killing bee colonies in some popular heather areas, including Angus and Perthshire, and it has reached as far north as Inverness. There is a growing fear that heather-seekers will actively target disease-free areas like the North West.

Foul Brood is a notifiable disease, so beekeepers who find it must tell the authorities and destroy the hive. However, varroa is not notifiable so the movement of hives with varroa is uncontrolled. The government’s centre for Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA) admits that it therefore has little knowledge of the movement of varroa-infested bees.

Beekeepers in the North West are very worried about this, and also about the risk of theft of their disease-free hives. One beekeeper from the district, who did not want to be named because of this concern, said: “We just have to hope that beekeepers from elsewhere will act responsibly and help us to keep this area clean. It’s gutting to think some bee people can be selfish, but they can.”

For local people who would like to take up beekeeping, the current situation involves waiting until a nearby hive swarms or a local beekeeper breeds a new “nucleus” colony. Bringing in bees from anywhere in the rest of the UK, even from respectable breeders, carries the risk of introducing the mite. A beekeeper in Melness said: “There are lots of people in the area who would like to keep bees, but even though there are people on the east coast who have bees to spare, we mustn’t bring them here”.

SASA’s advice to beekeepers is to gather scrapings from the floor of hives, and send them away for testing for varroa mites, on a regular basis. The presence of the mite can also be detected by examining drone brood, which is much more likely to be harbouring the mite than worker brood. The mites reproduce in brood cells, and over-winter on the bodies of adult bees. They are flat, reddish-brown and about 1.6mm x 1.1mm (crab-shaped, i.e. wider than they are long), and should not be confused with the relatively harmless bee lice or Braula, (which are longer than they are wide).

Both aspiring and current beekeepers must also avoid buying any second hand equipment, which may be harbouring the mite, from outside North West Sutherland. Although a quarantine zone is not possible to enforce, local vigilance will help a great deal to keep the area disease-free.

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