Essex Beekeepers’ Annual Conference 2010


Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Colony Collapse Disorder CCD, Essex Beekeepers' Association, Varroa destructor | Posted on 25-10-2010

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On Saturday I attended the Essex Beekeepers’ Association’s Annual Conference in Great Dunmow, an event far more exciting than its title would have you believe. It featured neither rousing anthems, nor resolutions or floor fights, nor even a gavel-banging chair person. What it did include were a number of first-class lectures on the present and future of beekeeping, each one introduced (in remarkably relaxed and professional manner) by a different member of the EBKA. Two of the speakers kindly allowed me to make their presentations available for download here.

Dr Peter Neumann presenting at the EBKA Annual Conference 2010

A stand-out performance: Dr Peter Neumann delivering his lecture on 'Apiculture in decline? Colony losses and the future of pollination'

Dr Peter Neumann of the Swiss Bee Research Centre in Bern was first up. A future TV star and spokesperson for the international beekeeping community if ever there was one, Dr Neumann cut quite a dash. At nearly 7 foot tall he dresses, if you can imagine this, like a cross between a university lecturer (which he is) and a teddy boy (which, being a German based in Switzerland, I’m guessing he isn’t). Despite talking for well over an hour he kept the audience spell-bound, before spending the remainder of his time at conference being followed around by a crocodile of enthusiasts, courteously answering an unending stream of questions.

Dr Neumann’s lecture entitled, ‘Apiculture in decline? Colony losses and the future of pollination’ went right to the heart of why beekeeping has attracted so many new recruits in recent years. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is now a worldwide phenomenon, while its causes remain – it seems rightly – much disputed. Having listened to him I’m inclined toward the view that if Dr Neumann hasn’t yet pinpointed the source of the problem, no-one has. Logically, all the evidence points to it being a combination of intensive (professional) beekeeping practices, industrialised farming and insecticides, and parasites and pathogens. No surprises there then. But here’s the thing: in the course of presenting a compelling case in favour of standardised measurement and data collection Dr Neumann revealed some of the statistical anomalies that existing – and reputable – research has already thrown up. For example in the US, which is often regarded as the epicenter of the CCD problem, professional beekeepers actually list CCD as being not even among their top five concerns.

Dr Neumann’s slide showing worldwide recorded instances of the Varroa destructor mite, almost exclusively confined to the northern hemisphere, drew an audible gasp from the 150-strong audience. It also acted as the perfect introduction to the second speaker, Ricarda Kather, a PhD student at the University of Sheffield*. If Dr Neumann was the harbinger of bad news then ‘Ricky’ was the cavalry… sort of.

Varroa destructor mite

Varroa destructor: tricky little mites (photo courtesy of University of Warwick***)

Her presentation on The effect of Varroa and Deformed Wing Virus (DWV) on the honey bee recognition system’ couldn’t help but leave me with a grudging respect for the annoying little pest, which has adapted itself almost perfectly to life as a bee colony parasite. Not so much that I won’t still nuke the little blighters given half a chance, mind you. Ricky Kather’s proposed experiments will hopefully prove most helpful in that battle.

Lunch was followed by a short pitch by author and beekeeping expert Clive De Bruyn on behalf of the charity Bees for Development, which in turn was followed by a presentation on the wildlife and bee varieties native to Essex** by John Hall, director of the Essex Wildlife Trust.

I confess that by this point the effects of a warm pastie and cool glass of cider were starting to kick-in. All morning we’d been under siege, but now all was well with the world. John’s slide show was a fabulous advertisement for the Essex countryside, leaving me to muse on what a very pleasant place we lived in, with all those ancient forests, and coastal marshes, and beautiful insects …and varieties of bee…

…I don’t think I actually dropped off. I’m sure it was the buzz of anticipation that hit me like a shot of adrenaline just as the prize-giving was getting underway. Having been a volunteer helper on the Essex Beekeepers’ Association stand at the Essex County Show I saw the quality of the honey products produced by club members. As I now discovered, the trophies for being best in show were pretty impressive too.

And so ended the day.

Once again I witnessed that if you ask two beekeepers a question you’ll get three different answers. More than that, I found it hard to avoid the sense that I’d joined an extended family and that this was our annual gathering; a chance to catch up with favourite aunts and cousins – while avoiding Uncle Fester – and to recognise that we were all in it together. I went not sure what to expect, and ended up having a really good time.

I commend this piece to Conference.

* Ricarda Kather’s research is being supervised by Dr S J Martin and Prof R K Butlin, and conducted in collaboration with Drs G Budge and F Drijfhout, with support from the BBSRC and East-Anglian Beekeepers.

** Note: This link will open part 1 of a presentation on the wildlife and bee varieties native to Essex as a PDF. Part 2, part 3 and part 4 can be similarly viewed by clicking on each link. Use the ‘back’ arrow on your browser to return to this page.

*** Photo courtesy of Dr David Chandler and the University of Warwick School of Life Sciences.