When John Chapple, one of London's largest keepers of bees, opened his 40 hives after the winter, he was shocked: 23 were empty, seven contained dead bees, and only 10 were unaffected by what seemed to be a mystery plague.
Beekeepers are used to diseases sweeping through their colonies, and, across the UK, nearly one in seven colonies dies naturally each winter. But this seemed very different to Chapple, who is head of the London Beekeepers Association and has 20 years' experience with the insects and their diseases.
"The problem was that most of the bees had just disappeared. It was like the Marie Celeste. There was no chance they had been stolen," he said on Wednesday.
"The ones that were left did not seem to have been attacked by varroa [the tiny parasitical mite that beekeepers have learned to live with since it arrived in the UK from Asia 15 years ago]. I really do not know what happened".
Chapple's experience has chimed with other beekeepers.
"Many colleagues and bee clubs tell me that they are experiencing something similar. The Pinner and Ruislip beekeepers' group told me only this morning that they have lost 50 percent to 75 percent of their bees. I don't know what is happening, but the bees are just going," he said.
Many British beekeepers fear they are witnessing the start of an alarming phenomenon which is sweeping the US and the rest of Europe. Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is possibly the most serious disease yet faced by bees.
According to the national bee unit of the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, its "symptoms appear to be the total collapse of bee colonies, with a complete absence of bees or only a few remaining in the hive."
The unit says no one has any idea what is causing CCD. Theories in the US, where 24 states are affected and losses of 50 percent to 90 percent of colonies are being reported, include environmental stresses, malnutrition, unknown pathogens, the use of antibiotics, mites, pesticides and genetically modified crops.
Because bees pollinate millions of hectares of fruit trees and crops, the implications for agriculture are enormous.
UK government bee inspectors met on Wednesday, but Mike Brown, head of the national bee unit based in York reported no signs of CCD in Britain.
"There is no evidence in the UK right now of colony collapse disorder," he said in a statement. "The majority of inspectors said that they can put the current mortalities in honeybee populations around the UK down to varroa or varroasis."
"I just don't know where they get their information," Chapple said. "They took away some of my bees but I have heard nothing."
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