A healthy honeybee colony can have as many as 50,000-60,000 individuals and in 2017 the UK government estimated the number of hives at 247,000. That means there could be as many as 1.23 million honeybees in the UK, however, the number is likely to be much less than this.
The fate of British bees is vital for us as bees are responsible for pollinating one-third of the world's crops. Bee populations across the world have been in sharp decline over the last decade, honeybees in particular. So, what is the population of honeybees in the UK? Find out how much of our food supply is pollinated by bees?
Almost all honeybees in the UK are domesticated and it is rare to find a wild population that has no human input into their development. Estimates of the UK honeybee population is based on the farmed hives owned by beekeepers, honey producers and farmers.
Since 2006 beekeepers globally began reporting annual losses within their colonies of 30-50% on average, but some lost as much as 90% of their stock. Sudden colony death is still being researched as there is no clear cause. The majority of the adult workers either die or vacate the hive, leaving behind the queen, juveniles, eggs and usually a strong store of pollen and honey.
Other threats facing honeybees colonies are harsh winters with early frosts, snow and ice. Colonies are also at risk of health problems such as Varroa mites and European Foulbrood, which is caused by bacteria. In addition, beekeepers must deal with the ever-changing landscape, with bees reliant on a close source of nectar and pollen-rich plants. Human expansion for building and agriculture is constantly reducing the availability of food resources for bee colonies across the UK.
Honeybees are most commonly found near grassland, farmland and woodland where there is a high density of vegetation producing nectar and pollen. It is also common to see honeybees in domestic gardens, especially those which are heavily planted with flowers and have bird baths or ponds. Bees need water not just to sustain themselves but also to regulate the temperature within their hive, like natural air conditioning.
Sightings of honeybees are higher in rural areas where there is a larger percentage of open green spaces, with tall grasses, hedgerows and bushes, as well as wildflowers and water sources like streams and natural ponds.
Honeybees are active between March and September, although the climate does affect this. An early spring may see honeybees emerging in February and late spring arrival could keep them indoors until April. Similarly, unseasonably warm autumn could allow honeybees to remain active well into October, especially if there is still plenty of vegetation available providing nectar and pollen.
Unlike bumblebee colonies which die off over winter, honeybees become dormant. Their eusocial lifestyle allows them to keep each other warm and their plentiful food supplies maintain the colony through until spring.
When the temperature falls below 10°C the worker bees will retreat into the hive and form a cluster around the queen. The cluster is formed depending on age. The queen and any juvenile bees are at the centre of the cluster, while the older bees complete the outer edges. They produce heat by vibrating their wing muscles and using their body hairs to trap the warm air. A cluster of honeybees is capable of maintaining an average hive temperature of 30°C even if it is below freezing outside!