This guide aims to help farmers and beekeepers to understand the importance of bees to farming and the environment, and how to safeguard and protect bees and other pollinators.
It outlines threats to bees from pests, diseases and environmental factors and explains what to do if you find signs of disease in your bee colonies. It describes the advice and support that the National Bee Unit (NBU) offers beekeepers, including its online BeeBase service and its Healthy Bees Plan. The guide also explains regulations that apply to the import and export of bees.
Bee pest and disease control
There are around 40,000 honey beekeepers in the UK with over 200,000 colonies of honeybees. About 300 are commercial beekeepers who manage approximately 40,000 colonies.
However, there has been a recent decline in pollinators - including butterflies, moths and bees - because of disease, environmental factors and climate change. The effects of this decline are potentially very serious for farming and the environment.
Diseases currently damaging bee health in the UK include European foulbrood (EFB) and American foulbrood (AFB) - both of which are notifiable bacterial diseases and therefore subject to statutory control measures. Other pests which are notifiable and subject to statutory control measures are the small hive beetle and Tropilaelaps mites. These are not found in the UK but there is a risk of their accidental import. You can find out about a non-statutory endemic honeybee pest on the page in this guide on Varroa.
Report suspected bee diseases or pests
In England and Wales, if you find signs of notifiable bee diseases or pests in your colonies, you are legally required to contact the Food and Environment Research Agency’s (Fera’s) NBU and ask them to send a bee inspector to examine the colony.
You may send a suspect pest or disease sample to the Fera NBU laboratories for diagnosis.
Elsewhere in the UK, you must contact the local office of the relevant government department.
If a bee inspector suspects that your colony is infected, they will issue a Standstill Notice. This prohibits the removal of bees and equipment from the colony. It will last for at least six weeks, until disease control measures recommended by the bee inspector have been successful.
If the bee inspector confirms EFB in your colony then they will follow up the Standstill Notice with either a Treatment Notice or a Destruction Notice. This will tell you what you need to do. If AFB is confirmed, the bee inspector will issue a Destruction Notice, which the beekeeper must carry out under the bee inspector’s supervision. If no foulbrood is confirmed, then the bee inspector will withdraw the Standstill Notice.
If small hive beetle or Tropilaelaps mites are suspected, then the procedure set out in the England and Wales contingency plan for exotic pests and diseases of honeybees will be followed. First, the NBU will set up a National Disease Control Centre at the Fera site in York to coordinate the emergency response. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) or the Welsh Government will declare a Statutory Infected Area, where movement restrictions will apply to any bee-related material. Fera will support beekeepers with pest and disease management and containment.
The National Bee Unit and BeeBase
Fera’s NBU protects bees, supports the beekeeping industry and addresses any biosecurity threats to the sustainability of bees and apiculture. It also works with the Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme (WIIS) to analyse the causes of suspected bee poisoning by pesticides.
The Bee Health Inspectorate within the NBU is responsible for:
- free apiary inspections
- the BeeBase information technology system
- contingency planning and surveillance programmes for notifiable pest and disease outbreaks
- training beekeepers in honeybee disease recognition and controls and bee husbandry
The NBU also carries out:
- advice and consultancy to government, industry and overseas scientists
- research and development in disease prevention and management
- monitoring pesticide residues in honey on behalf of the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) and the effects of pesticides on honeybees and bumblebees on behalf of the WIIS
- testing new veterinary medicines for use on honeybee and bumblebee pests
- pest and disease diagnosis
During the summer, NBU bee inspectors visit apiaries to inspect colonies for signs of disease. They may contact you to arrange an inspection every so often. However, as they can’t visit every beekeeper every year, you will also need to carry out your own checks for signs of brood disease and other pests and diseases. You can learn how to do this by attending NBU training courses on recognition and control of foulbrood and other bee pests and diseases.
BeeBase is the NBU’s live online database. It provides a wide range of information about beekeeping, and enables registered beekeepers to access free NBU services. You can register online as a beekeeper on the Fera BeeBase website.
Bee health programme
Healthy honeybee populations are vital to food and crop production and the natural environment.
Defra is working with the Welsh Government and the NBU to implement the Healthy Bees Plan. This plan aims to:
- minimise impacts from pests, diseases and other hazards
- sustain honeybee populations through good standards of beekeeping that aim to reduce pest and disease risks
- encourage effective biosecurity to limit risks from pests, diseases and undesirable species
- support bee health through sound scientific research
- improve communication between everyone involved in beekeeping
- improve bee husbandry and increase the number of beekeepers on BeeBase
For the plan to be effective, everyone involved in beekeeping needs to work together. Defra, the Welsh Government and the NBU aim to work together with beekeepers and beekeeping associations, as well as UK scientists, honey importers and packers, and manufacturers of products used by beekeepers. If you keep bees, you have a duty of care towards your bees. You should:
- recognise and report notifiable bee pests and diseases
- practice good husbandry to prevent and control the spread of pests and diseases
- sign up to BeeBase
- comply with pest and disease control and, import legislation and requirements - these include Standstill Notices and specialist advice from the local bee inspector
Varroa, a parasitic mite, is an endemic pest of honeybees in England and Wales. It is the main disease problem for beekeepers and bee scientists. Uncontrolled Varroa can cause severely infested honeybee colonies to collapse within a few weeks because UK honeybees have few natural defences against it. As it cannot be eradicated, beekeepers need to control it effectively, but resistance to some treatments makes this increasingly difficult.
How Varroa operates in a bee colony
Varroa mites arrive in a colony as external parasites on adult bees. This can be either through natural bee activities like swarming or robbing, or from beekeepers’ movements of infested colonies. Once in the hive, Varroa can feed on adult bees and their brood, puncturing their body wall to feed on their blood.
To breed, an egg-carrying female mite enters an occupied drone or worker brood cell just before the cell is capped. After the cell is capped, she feeds on the immature bee and then lays the first of her eggs - one male, followed by four to five female eggs. The mite offspring develop to adulthood and mate within the cell. Their feeding activities severely damage the immature bee.
Mature, egg-carrying female mites leave the cell with the emerging bee. They live for two to three months in the summer and transfer from bee to bee and brood cell to brood cell. In winter, mites live much longer on adult bees within the colony, and then re-enter the brood in the spring. Depending on the bee colony, the Varroa mite population can grow between 12 and 800 fold in any reproductive cycle, so even after a high-efficacy Varroa control treatment, mite levels can return to their previous level within a year.
Identify, monitor and control Varroa infestation
Female Varroa mites have flat, reddish-brown oval bodies (1.6 x 1.1 millimetres) which are visible on bees’ bodies. Male and immature female Varroa mites are smaller, pale and exist only in brood cells. You need to be able to distinguish Varroa mites from the bee louse, Tropilaelaps mite and Melittiphis mites. You can download Fera’s photos of Varroa mites from the Agricultural Document Library (ADLib) website (PDF, 1 MB).
You need to routinely monitor Varroa mite infestation in your colonies, ideally at least in early spring, after the spring honey flow, at honey harvest and late autumn. Monitoring methods include:
- measuring ‘mite drop’ onto a sampling tray or drawer underneath the floor of the colony
- uncapping at least 100 advanced drone brood cells
Control methods aim to keep mite population below the level where harm to the colony is likely. The two main types of control methods are varroacides, applied in various ways, and biotechnical means which involve physically removing the mites. This may involve:
- trapping them in brood combs which are then removed and destroyed
- removing drone brood
- creating an artificial swarm
- using open mesh floors
Often, using a combination of chemical and biotechnical controls is the most effective method.
Four varroacides are authorised by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD). Others are non-approved substances such as organic acids and essential oils. It is also possible to obtain and use EU authorised varrroacides.
In some apiaries, Varroa have developed resistance to pyrethroids, which are the active ingredients of some widely used varroacides. To avoid the development of resistance to varroacides, you should:
- use the specified dose, for the specified period
- treat as little as possible
- alternate varroacides with other unrelated treatments
If you have resistant mites in your apiary, you will need to stop using pyrethroids and change to a non-pyrethroid treatment, biotechnical methods, or both. You can download information about testing for pyrethroid resistance from the Fera BeeBase website (PDF, 187K).
Integrated pest management
If mites in your apiary are resistant to pyrethroids, the best form of Varroa control is Integrated Pest Management (IPM). This means using good husbandry to maintain strong colonies, and a combination of controls applied several times a year, at levels that suit the level of infestation. To decide which level of controls you need to apply, you can monitor the drone brood to see how many Varroa mites there are in the brood cells. The aim of IPM is keep Varroa below the level where they would cause serious harm. You can download Fera’s information about integrated Varroa pest management from the ADLib website (PDF, 1.00MB).
International trade of bees
To import or move bees into the UK, you need to follow animal health requirements laid down in national and EU laws.
You can only import honey or bumblebees from other countries within the EU if they have a European Commission Health Certificate from the competent authority where the bees come from. Amongst other things, the certificate must show that their area of origin has been free of AFB for at least the previous 30 days.
You will also need to give at least one working day’s notice to the relevant destination Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA). To do this, you can use the online Trade Control and Expert System (TRACES), or complete and send the form BEE28 to inform the Fera that you will be importing honey bees and bumble bees. You should also send the NBU advance notice of your import.
For contact details of your local AHVLA office use the postcode search tool on the Defra website.
You can only import honeybees or bumblebees from listed countries outside the EU if they meet the requirements of the European Commission Health Certificate for notifiable bee diseases and infestations. You can download the list of non-EU countries that meet the bee health requirements from the Fera BeeBase website (PDF, 191K).
You can only import consignments of queen bees and attendant workers from these listed third countries, or packages or single colonies of bumblebees (up to 200 adult bees per container), subject to health requirements and certificates. Each queen bee must be contained in a single cage and accompanied by no more that 20 attendant worker bees.
Bees can only be imported through approved Border Inspection Points (BIPs) at Heathrow and Gatwick airports. You will need to notify the divisional veterinary manager of the BIP at least one working day in advance. You can do this using the TRACES. To register to use the TRACES, contact the BIP you intend to import the bees through. Alternatively, you can download a form for notification by honey bee and bumble bee importer from the Fera website (PDF, 663K). You should also send the NBU advance notice of the import.
Once veterinary checks have been successfully carried out, you will be given a Common Veterinary Entry Document to accompany the consignment to its first point of destination inside the UK.
When you receive a consignment of imported queen honeybees from one of the eligible countries outside the EU, you must:
- transfer the queens to new queen cages before introducing them to local colonies
- send the NBU the queen cages, attendant worker bees and other material that came with the queen bees from their country of origin, within five days of receiving them
When you receive a consignment of imported bumble bees, you must destroy the container they came in and all material that accompanied them. You must do this either during or immediately at the end of the lifespan of the imported colony.
Exporting bees within the EU requires the same health certification as EU imports. You can ask your local Fera-appointed bee inspector for an inspection in order to get a Health Certificate.
Restrictions apply to movement of hives into EU Fireblight Protected Zones between 15 March and 30 June.
024 7669 6679
Heathrow BIP Divisional Veterinary Manager
020 8759 7002
HMRC VAT Helpline
0845 010 9000
Fera Bee Health Policy Helpline
01904 465 636
National Bee Unit
01904 462 510
Gatwick BIP Divisional Veterinary Manager
01737 242 242
0800 321 600