By Richard Gray, Science Correspondent
Eavesdropping on the buzzing of honey bees in their hives can reveal whether they are suffering from disease, according to scientists.
Dr Bencsik believes they can detect the messages sent by infected bees to diagnose illnesses as they start to spread Photo: AP
Researchers have found they can detect subtle changes in the vibrations honey bees use to communicate with each other that indicate how healthy the insects are.
Growing levels of disease, including a deadly parasite known as verroa mite, have taken a devastating toll on honey bee colonies, causing numbers of the insects in Britain to more than halve in the past 25 years.
Dr Martin Bencsik, a physicist at Nottingham Trent University, is now developing a device that can automatically detect the signs of disease in bees to give bee keepers an early warning of any infections in a colony and hopefully allow them to take action.
It detects distinct vibrations that the insects pass through the honeycomb in their hives to warn others in the colony about possible threats.
Much like listening to a human heart beat, Dr Bencsik and his team believe they can detect the messages sent by infected bees to diagnose illnesses as they start to spread within a hive. It could also spot harm caused by pollution and pesticides.
Dr Bencsik said: “A third of the food that humans eat is a direct consequence of honey bee pollination, so it is essential that honey bee health is maintained.
“Yet in recent years, honey bees are suffering from more stress than ever before and this is leaving them vulnerable to disease.
“Honey bees don’t have ears, but they are exquisitely sensitive to vibrations which they receive through their legs. We are logging the vibrations on the honey comb and are using computer software to interpret those patterns.
“While humans could listen to the hives themselves, we are using a computer system to automatically diagnose.”
For bee keepers, often the first signs that their hives are suffering from disease is when bees start dying in large numbers.
Over the cold winter months, when the insects are most vulnerable, many bee keepers are reluctant to open their hives for fear of disturbing the colony and causing them to use up vital food sources.
The bee diagnosis device being developed by Dr Bencsik, who is working with the Bee Farmers Association of the United Kingdom, will continuously monitor the vibrations produced by the bees for signs of infected bees. This can then wirelessly send alerts to bee keepers.
Bees are known to use vibrations to communicate with each other in their hives and scientists have already been able to decode a particular behaviour known as a waggle dance, which thes bees use to tell others about the location of good food sources.
In the waggle dance, a bee will beat its wings rapidly and shake its body from side to side as it walks in a single direction along the honeycomb before circling back and starting the dance again. The duration and direction of the dance tells other bees where the flowers are.
Dr Bencsik is now working to identify distinct vibrations that indicate the bees have found an infection in the colony by looking for changes in frequency – the speed of the vibrations – and how long they go on for.
Dr Bencsik added: “Bees produce a huge response in their buzzing when they are exposed to harmful chemicals. Some research from the United States has shown they produce a specific buzzing to individual chemicals.
“If you have a device that can tell bee keepers that their colonies are effected by a pesticide or known source of pollution then they can take action to protect the bees from that.”
Bees pollinate more than £1 billion worth of crops in the UK each year, including cabbages, sprouts, cauliflowers, carrots, strawberries, apples and pears. Many wild flowers and garden flowers also rely upon the insects to spread their pollen.
In recent years bee keepers have reported increased losses through the winter months as fewer colonies have survived and they are expected to record losses this winter as the cold wet conditions continue well into spring.
Last year bee keepers announced a dramatic fall in the amount of honey they obtained from hives due to the poor summer weather while they also warned that new queens would also struggle this year as a result.
Verroa mite, along with another parasite known as nosema and a number of viruses have caused widespread losses in bee colonies. Without strong immune systems, a colony can collapse within weeks once an infection takes hold.
Increased pesticide use and pollution has also been blamed for weakening bee colonies and leaving them more vulnerable to disease.
The European Union is considering strict new guidelines on pesticides after a food safety report concluded that neonictinoid pesticides interfere with ability of bees to navigate. They recommended that these pesticides should not be used on crops visited by honey bees.
David Bancalari, research and administration officer at the Bee Farmers Association, said: “For years we have been struggling to improve the health of our bees.
“We know early intervention is crucial. This research could give us those vital, life saving early signs of problems allowing us to tend to our bees much sooner – giving us the equivalent of the golden hour in human first aid.”
BBC News 30 October 2012 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20139062
Some beekeepers were forced to feed their bees with sugar syrup to avoid starvation over the summer
A cold and wet summer across the UK has caused a “dramatic fall” in the amount of honey produced by British bees, a survey of beekeepers has revealed.
Yields are down 72% compared to 2011, research by the British Beekeepers’ Association (BBKA) suggested.
An average of 8lb (3.6kg) of honey was produced per hive this year, compared to the annual average of 30lb (13.6kg).
The majority of those surveyed (88%) said the rain and cold weather was the main reason the harvest was poor.
More than 2,700 beekeepers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were surveyed in the BBKA’s annual Honey Survey.
The honey harvest was lowest in London, where hives produced an average of 5.6lb (2.5kg) of honey.
‘Most difficult year’
In Northern Ireland, hives yielded the highest average of 25.8lb (11.7kg) of honey – but the figure is only half the amount normally produced by bees in the area.
Earlier this year, the cold and wet conditions forced the organisation to issue a mid-summer warning to feed honey bee colonies with sugar syrup if necessary to avoid starvation.
Honey bees produce honey as a food store. Normally, this store would be enough to see them through the winter months.
A harsh summer in 2012 may mean there are fewer honey bees in 2013
The BBKA warned the worst may be yet to come, as a lack of food for bees and wet conditions mean breeding queens have been unable to produce a large enough brood to see colonies through the winter.
Peter Hutton, a beekeeper in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, described 2012 as “the most difficult year I have known in my 53 years of beekeeping”.
“Bad weather in spring prevented honey bees in many areas from collecting nectar from early flowering crops such as oil seed rape, and the rain continued in many places throughout June and July preventing honey bees from foraging on later crops,” he said.
In London, where yields were hardest hit, beekeeping experts said that in addition to the bad weather there was a lack of food for bees in the city.
Angela Woods, secretary of the London Beekeepers’ Association, said: “Rather than putting beehives on office roofs, we encourage companies in London who want to help to look at different ways of supporting bees and beekeepers.
“We need more forage for the bees and better-educated beekeepers.”
Tim Lovett, the BBKA’s public affairs director, said there has been greater emphasis on “training and developing” beekeepers in recent years.
He added: “We need more resources to put into training, education and bee health research, to continue to support our honey bees and other pollinators.
“Well trained beekeepers are better equipped to deal with the adverse conditions we have seen this year.
“Without training, this year’s situation might have been a lot worse.”
BBC News 26 October 2012 Last updated at 07:53
Varroa mites are endemic in honey bee hives and can sap a colony’s strength
Honey-bees are known for their sting, but scientists have now discovered they can also bite.
Bees resort to biting when faced with pests, such as parasitic mites, that are too small to sting.
Close study of the biting behaviour has revealed that they secrete a chemical in their bite that stuns pests so they are easier to eject from a colony.
Tests suggest the chemical could also have a role in human medicine, as a local anaesthetic.
Dr Alexandros Papachristoforou, a biologist at Greece’s Aristotle University of Thessaloniki told the BBC honey-bees had previously been seen dealing with pests that lived alongside them in colonies but this had always thought to be part of their grooming behaviour.
“Everybody thought that was it. Full stop,” Dr Papachristoforou said. “But that’s not the case. It’s something totally different and was just there and we could not see it.
“I think we know too many things about the pathology of honey bees,” he said. “We are still missing a lot of basic knowledge on their biology and behaviour.”
Bees were thought to use their mandibles to groom rather than bite
The pests that honey-bees bite include varroa mites as well as wax moth larvae.
The varroa mite is endemic throughout both feral and cultivated honey-bee colonies.
If the population of mites in a hive is left unchecked they can sap the strength of workers, making them much more susceptible to viruses, disease and other debilitating conditions.
Wax moth larvae burrow through the comb in hives gradually destroying the cells where broods are raised and honey stored.
The knock-out effect of the chemical secreted in the honey-bee bite, known as 2-heptanone, was discovered as Dr Papachristoforou and colleagues observed bees dealing with pests.
Dr Papachristoforou recovered wax moth larvae that had been ejected from a hive, assuming the bees had killed them. Instead, he said, the larvae had started wriggling again soon after being ejected.
Before now bees were thought to secrete 2-heptanone as an alarm pheromone to tell other colony members about a potential threat.
However, said Dr Papachristoforou, this had never seemed an entirely satisfactory explanation because 2-heptanone was so volatile that it quickly lost its potency. In addition, he said, bees had at their disposal a much more powerful chemical alarm signal.
To stun pests, the 2-heptanone is injected at the site of the bite a bee inflicts on a mite, moth or larvae.
Early tests suggest 2-heptanone may also find a role in humans as a local anaesthetic. It could be an alternative to well established treatments such as lidocaine that can provoke allergenic reactions in some people. The researchers published their results in the journal Plos One.
“The potential implications of this new research for honey-bees and their interactions with varroa mites and wax moth larvae will need to be looked at in more detail, but the initial results look really interesting,” said Giles Budge, senior researcher with the UK’s National Bee Unit.
“I think it is amazing that despite all the years of intensive study there are still massive discoveries to be made about fundamental honey-bee physiology such as the ability to paralyse small insects and mites,” he said.
Dr Papachristoforou, said the good news about the research was that bees would not inflict any damage on humans if they bit them.
“Humans cannot be bitten by bees,” he said. “They have such small mandibles they can only use them against larvae and mites.”
From an article by Ian Sample science correspondent in the guardian.co.uk, Sunday 16 September 2012 18.00 BST
Bees in a hive near Woking: the study is thought to be the first to show that reversible chemical markers on genes might drive different behaviours. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Experiments on the division of labour in honeybee hives have revealed why some bees do the waggle dance while others nurse their queens.
The roles require drastically different behaviours, with nurses feeding the larvae and performing royal grooming duties, and foragers navigating great distances and performing complex dance routines to point others in the direction of rich sources of nectar.
According to a report in the journal Nature Neuroscience, the job a worker bee does corresponds to distinct patterns of chemicals that latch on to and regulate certain genes in their brains.
Honeybees are born into their place in society. Those fed royal jelly as larvae emerge as queens and do little but lay eggs. The rest become worker bees and divvy up the jobs that need doing around the hive. While some worker bees remain at home, others take flight in search of nectar, pollen and other hive essentials. The entire honeybee workforce are genetically identical sisters.
But analysis of the worker bees’ DNA revealed that foragers had one pattern of chemical tags on their genes, while those that stayed home had another. When bees swapped one job for the other, their genetic tags changed accordingly. Scientists call these patterns epigenetic states, because they work on top of the normal genetic code.
The study is thought to be the first to show that reversible chemical markers on genes might drive different behaviours in a living creature.
“If this is true in a bee it has to be partly true in us. Nature is pretty good at finding the simplest way to accomplish things with the least amount of energy,” said Dr Andrew Feinberg, a senior author on the study and geneticist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “I’m not saying we’re like big bees, but similar mechanisms must apply.”
Feinberg and Dr Gro Amdam, a bee specialist at Arizona State University, studied a kind of chemical tagging called DNA methylation on honeybee genes switched on in the millimetre-cubed brains of 21 nurses and 22 foragers.
They found 155 regions of DNA where the epigenetic patterns between the two varieties of honeybee differed. Most of these regions are known to regulate the epigenetic patterns of other genes, to switch them on or off, or alter their function in other ways.
Having established differences between the foragers and nurses, the scientists forced a shift in the hive’s workforce by removing the nurse bees while the foragers were away. After a few weeks, the hive had stabilised again, with around half of the old foragers now working as nurse bees.
DNA tests on these insects revealed that the chemical tags changed in bees that reverted from foragers to nurse roles. In all, the scientists found 107 gene regions where the chemical tags differed between the two. This suggests the different roles are intimately linked to the chemicals tagged on to the bees’ genes.
“What we understand now is that the bee genome is like those images where you can see two things, like an old lady and a young lady. These epigenetic marks seem to outline those two women. Depending on which bee should come to life, the different sets of marks become active,” Dr Amdam told the Guardian.
“These marks can change from one image to another and even back, and something like that has never been observed before in biology,” she said.
Family disputes create rebel bees
BBC Nature News 1 May 2012
Workers can rebel against their queen
Continue reading the main story
Worker bees rebel when faced with the prospect of raising their nephews and nieces, research has found.
Scientists in Poland have studied post-swarm bee colonies to understand how workers react to a change in queen.
They discovered that when a daughter replaces her mother as head of the colony, some worker bees reproduce instead of caring for their monarch’s offspring.
The findings are published in the journal Current Biology.
Honey bee facts
- A queen honey bee can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day
- Worker bees live an average of 40 days in the summer but queen bees can live for up to 5 years
- Bees do not have knees – although their legs are jointed they do not have recognisable kneecaps
Prof Michal Woyciechowski from the Institute of Environmental Sciences at Jagiellonian University in Poland led the research.
In a honey bee colony there is a single fertile queen and thousands of fertile male drones, all supported by the queen’s sterile daughters, which are known as workers.
Swarming is a natural occurence in which the queen and part of her colony leave en masse to find a new nest site.
Before she leaves, the queen bee lays a number of eggs, one of which will develop into a new fertile queen supported by the remaining workers.
In this case, Prof Woyciechowski explained, rather than rearing their brothers and sisters, “workers are obligated to rear nieces and nephews”.
“This drop in relatedness causes the old queen’s workers to lay their own eggs.”
The scientists say this is not simply a behavioural switch, but a fundamental change in the workers’ biology.
To analyse changes in the bees, the team split a bee colony, casuing the temporary lack of a queen that occurs naturally after a swarm. They also examined a natural swarm.
Rebel strategy probably gives the workers a better chance to multiply their genes”
Professor Michal WoyciechowskiInstitute of Environmental Sciences, Jagiellonian University, Poland
For both experiments the researchers found that, before a new queen developed, the worker larvae actually grew ovaries – forming egg-producing tubes in place of the food-producing glands they use to “nurse” the colonial brood.
“Most investigators of honey bees strongly believe that the number of [egg-producing tubes] in workers’ ovaries is determined genetically,” said Prof Woyciechowski.
“This is of course true, however, none of them expected that, during workers’ development, larvae have a possibility to switch from nursing to rebel strategy.”
But the observed rebellion was brief: once the new queen’s own workers hatched they were able to suppress the reproducing rebels.
Prof Woyciechowski suggested that, among animals well-known for their altruism, the motivation for the workers development is surprisingly “selfish”.
“Rebel strategy – direct reproduction and an increase in personal fitness – probably gives the workers a better chance to multiply their genes than indirect reproduction via [the] sister-queen,” he said.
The Telegraph – Thursday 22 March 2012
Honeybees face a double whammy from insecticides and disease, according to a new study that could explain the global decline in the insects.
Honeybees are declining because of insecticides and disease, suggests a new study. Photo: GETTY
The sudden drop in honeybees in recent years has led to widespread debate over the cause, with many blaming intensive farming methods that use more pesticides.
However this was dismissed by other studies that found disease is just as damaging.
Now a French study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, suggests that it could be a combination of both, as pesticides weaken honeybees and they then die of disease.
The decline in honeybees first hit the headlines around 10 years ago with the mysterious death of whole hives in America, known as Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD. It is now believed that the US has fewer managed pollinators than at any time in the past 50 years. Many countries in Europe have also seen a decline and honeybee numbers in the UK have halved in the past 25 years.
The UK Government and others have invested billions of pounds into solving the problem since bees are crucial to pollinating flowers and therefore to producing food.
In the latest study a laboratory at Université Blaise Pascal in France studied bees infected with a disease known as nosemosis and bees exposed to an insecticide known as fipronil. Neither of the case studies resulted in many deaths.
However when the bees were exposed to both the disease and the insecticide, in any combination, a large number died.
Nicolas Blot, who led the study, said only “multi-factors” could explain the worldwide decline.
He said the world community now has to work on how to minimise the stress on insects.
“Until now nobody could find one single reason why bees were in decline worldwide,” said he said. “Many worked on one kind of stress. What we show here it is not one insecticide or one disease that explains what is happening but a combination of factors in the environment. Bees are not exposed to one stress they are exposed to many.”
Fipronil is banned in many countries and no longer sold in the UK but is a widespread insecticide on crops in America.
Matthew Shardlow, Chief Executive of the insect charity Buglife, agreed it is a combination of factors leading to the decline in honeybees.
But he said the insecticides are the most easily controlled, since they are the result of human activity.
He suggested a host of chemicals used in Britain and around the world are causing the decline in bees and other insects by exacerbating disease and other factors.
“The evidence gets more and more compelling every time that these chemicals are unsafe for the environment and the Government is not doing enough,” he said.
BBC Nature News 16 March 2012 http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/17381710
Hornet-killing honeybees’ brain activity measured
Bees gather around a hornet inserted into their hive. Footage courtesy of Masato Ono, Tamagawa University.
Japanese honeybees’ response to a hive-invading giant hornet is efficient and dramatic; they form a “bee ball” around it, serving to cook and asphyxiate it.
Now, researchers in Japan have measured the brain activity of honeybees when they form this killer ball.
One highly active area of the bees’ brains, they believe, allows them to generate the constant heat which is deadly for the hornet.
The team published their findings in the open-access journal, PLoS One.
Prof Takeo Kubo from the University of Tokyo explained that “higher centres” of the bee’s brain, known as the mushroom bodies, were more active in the brains of Japanese honeybees when they were a part of the “hot defensive bee ball”.
To find this out, the team lured the bees to form their ball by attaching a hornet to the end of a wire and inserting the predator into the hive.
This simulated invasion caused the bees to swarm around the hornet. The researchers then plucked a few of the bees from the ball and measured, throughout each of their tiny brains, the relative amount of a chemical that is known to be a “marker” of brain activity.
“We found that similar [brain] activity is evoked when the Japanese honeybees are simply exposed to high temperature (46C) in the laboratory,” the researcher told BBC Nature.
Honeybees’ brain activity may help them maintain the 46C temperature on the inside of the ball
This suggests that this area of the brain is important for processing temperature information.
The team thinks that the mushroom bodies allow the bees to precisely control the temperature they generate inside the bee ball. The same researchers previously discovered that this remains at 46C until the hornet is successfully killed.
Prof Kubo said that this brain region might “modulate the vibration of the flight muscle”, which is what generates this heat.
The bees, he explained, must maintain the temperature in the bee ball around 46 degrees “because, if the temperature of the bee ball is below [that], the hornet will not be killed”.
“[And] if the temperature is above 46 degrees, not only the hornet but also the bees will be killed.”
Dr Masato Ono from Tamagawa University, who also took part in the study, added: “The crucial function is to keep temperature inside the bee ball within the range of 46 to 48C, [like] a thermostat.”
The team hope eventually to find out what kind of brain function is unique to the Japanese honeybees compared to that of the European honeybees, which do not form these spherical armies.
BBC News 1 February 2012
Bee hive hums recorded to monitor insects’ health
Honey bees use vibration to communicate while inside the hive
Continue reading the main story
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Monitoring devices are being put in bee hives across Scotland as part of a project to keep an eye on their health.
The monitors record temperature and use a microphone to record the hum the bees make while working and resting.
Already the project has started to show the many different hums bees use to co-ordinate their work.
The project is also helping to work out which environmental forces and factors are behind the decline in bees and other pollinators.
The monitor is the invention of Huw Evans, who swapped his former trade of electronic engineering for beekeeping.
He said the desire to get a better idea of what was happening inside a colony came to him after a few bad experiences with hives on the verge of swarming.
Mr Evans knew of the work done in the 1950s by BBC sound engineer and beekeeper Eddie Woods, who created a device that analysed the sounds made by bees in a hive.
Mr Woods claimed that more than 90% of the inspections beekeepers made of their hives were unnecessary because, most of the time, the bees were fine.
In those cases, all a beekeeper did when he looked through the combs was upset the bees and stunt honey production.
To fine tune his beekeeping, Mr Woods produced a device called the “apidictor” that helped spot when hives needed help because they were sick, running low on stores or close to swarming.
The downside of using the apidictor was that a beekeeper still had to visit a hive and insert a microphone to listen to the hum within.
The varroa mite is one of many pests that sap the health of a colony of bees
Mr Evans’ monitor updates the apidictor using modern digital signal processors and algorithms designed to recognise different hums. He has set up a company called Arnia to commercialise the device.
“Every job a bee does inside a hive makes a slightly different noise,” he said. “So if we can listen to the mass of sound within the hive and possibly dissect that, we can find out a lot about the inner dynamics within the hive.
“We started off looking for swarm prediction but when we began trawling through the data we noticed some other features. The monitor can give an indication of the strength of the hive, the fitness of the hive, how fast the hive is building, their intent to swarm and other such things.”
The monitor is a flat black box about the size of an iPhone that regularly measures the temperature of the brood inside a hive and the sound of the bees. This data is regularly sent to a separate master unit, which collates responses from several monitors. It also keeps an eye on rainfall and external temperatures.
Every so often the master unit sends the information it has received from all the other monitors, plus weather data, back to a server via the mobile network.
While developing the monitor, Mr Evans has been refining the analytical tools that dissect the different hums in a hive. He hopes these will help the many scientists researching the problems that afflict bees, by giving them hints about what was happening before a colony failed.
Mr Evans is working with the Scottish Beekeepers Association, and the little black boxes are now sitting in about 70 hives across the region.
The data gathered by the monitors is also aiding the research of Chris Connolly from the University of Dundee, who is taking part in the Insect Pollinators Initiative – a five-year, £10m project which aims to understand what is causing populations of these insects to dwindle.
Bees were a good indicator of the health of that larger insect population and were much easier to study as they lived inside a hive, said Mr Connolly.
The monitors are sitting in about 70 hives across Scotland
“We have monitors in hives to record how the colony builds in strength throughout the season,” he said. “Hopefully, we can correlate that to events that occur on each individual hive, whether a particular treatment knocked bees back or not, and whether the weather and other factors also play a part.
“Bees are so important because they and other insect pollinators produce 30% of the food on our plates.”
Mr Evans was also hopeful that regular monitoring of hive hums would pinpoint when bees were sick and what disease had hit them.
“We’ve noticed that ill colonies sound different,” he said. “We haven’t managed to characterise which diseases leads to which sounds but that’s work in progress.”
As well as helping beekeepers, the work of the hive monitor could also give great detail about a largely unexplored facet of the honey bee’s life.
“We know less about acoustic communication than any other type of communication in bees,” said Alexandros Papachristoforou, a biologist at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki who studies bees.
“Researchers tend to look at visual communication or chemical communication. They don’t pay much attention to sound.”
The hum in a hive is generated by the bees shivering their wings and abdomen as they go about their work in the colony. Although bees lack ears, the hum is believed to be very important to the co-ordination of hive activity, because bees often modify wax comb to be a better conductor of vibration.
Sound was hugely important inside the hive where vision was useless and chemical signals took time to propagate, said Mr Papachristoforou.
“It’s a huge field we must pay attention to,” he said. “There will be a lot of surprising findings coming out of it.”
BBC News 20 January 2012 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-north-east-wales-16645223Continue reading the main story
Bees ‘could deter vandals’ at Greenfield heritage park
Surrounding footpaths have been shut to walkers
- Stranded cat rescued from M4 sign
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Heritage park bosses could use bees to act as a deterrent to stop vandal attacks on historic buildings.
They are looking for sustainable ways to protect old mill buildings at Greenfield Valley Heritage Park, near Holywell, Flintshire.
One idea already tabled is using bees to deter people from going into the protected buildings.
A planning application is due to be submitted to Flintshire council to erect fencing around some of the sites.
An area around Greenfield Mill had to close last summer due to concerns it was in a dangerous condition, with surrounding footpaths also shut to walkers.
I haven’t heard of them being used as security bees”
Barbara ChickWelsh Beekeepers’ Association
Park manager Chris Wright said the deterioration was partly due to age as well as vandal attacks.
He said it would be difficult to deter people determined to get into buildings on the free access public site, making the idea to use bees “seem sensible”.
He hopes a beekeeping group could use the land to produce honey, with the bees themselves helping to pollinate wildflower meadows which could also be created in the area.
“They could be a deterrent,” said Barbara Chick, publicity officer for the Welsh Beekeepers’ Association.
“I haven’t heard of them being used as security bees.”
However, she pointed out there may be health and safety issues if someone was stung and said she would not agree to their use as a security measure.
The idea is to use the bees as a security deterrent and sell honey in the park’s new cafe
Planning permission to erect fencing around Greenfield Mill is to be sought to allow paths to reopen while discussions continue about how to stop the further decline of buildings, while managing and encouraging wildlife around them.
Mr Wright said the main issue had always been striking a balance between the environment and wildlife on one hand and historical and industrial concerns on the other.
He said aerial photos recently uncovered from the 1930s show little flora and fauna, whereas today the whole site was covered in trees and vegetation.
And there has been proof of otters using the water course and ponds which served the old mills in the valley close to St Winefride’s holy well, as well as sightings of a goshawk and other birds of prey.
The 70-acre (28 hectares) heritage park, which includes a museum and farm, is owned by Flintshire council and managed by trustees from The Greenfield Valley Trust.
Can austerity boost economic growth?
With government spending cuts in Europe threatening to produce a global recession, what can an 18th century philosopher, bees and modern economists tell us?
- Robert Shiller
- guardian.co.uk, Thursday 19 January 2012 11.22 GMT
Bernard Mandeville’s 18th century fable imagined how a sudden austerity drive could bring down a colony of bees. Photograph: RESO/Rex Features
In his classic Fable of the Bees: or Private Vices, Public Benefits (1723), Bernard Mandeville, the Dutch-born British philosopher and satirist, described – in verse – a prosperous society (of bees) that suddenly chose to make a virtue of austerity, dropping all excess expenditure and extravagant consumption. What then happened?
The Price of Land and Houses falls;
Mirac’lous Palaces, whose Walls,
Like those of Thebes, were rais’d by Play
Are to be let; …
The building Trade is quite destroy’d
Artificers are not employ’d; …
Those, that remain’d, grown temp’rate strive
Not how to spend, but how to live …
That sounds a lot like what many advanced countries have been going through, after financial-crisis-induced austerity plans were launched, doesn’t it? Is Mandeville a genuine prophet for our times?
Fable of the Bees developed a wide following, and generated substantial controversy, which continues to this day. The austerity plans being adopted by governments in much of Europe and elsewhere around the world, and the curtailment of consumption expenditure by individuals as well, threaten to produce a global recession.
But how do we know if Mandeville is right about austerity? His research method – a long poem about his theory – is hardly convincing to modern ears.
Harvard economist Alberto Alesina recently summarised evidence concerning whether government deficit reduction – that is, expenditure cuts and/or tax increases – always induces such negative effects: “The answer to this question is a loud no.” Sometimes, even often, economies prosper nicely after the government’s deficit is sharply reduced. Sometimes, just maybe, the austerity programme boosts confidence in such a way as to ignite a recovery.
We have to examine the issue with some care, understanding that the issue that Mandeville raised is really a statistical one: the outcome of government deficit reduction is never entirely predictable, so we can ask only how likely such a plan is to succeed in restoring economic prosperity. And the biggest problem here is accounting for possible reverse causality.
For example, if evidence of future economic strength makes a government worry about economic overheating and inflation, it might try to cool domestic demand by raising taxes and lowering government spending. If the government is only partly successful in preventing economic overheating, it might nonetheless appear to casual observers that austerity actually strengthened the economy.
Likewise, the government’s deficit might fall not because of austerity, but because the stock market’s anticipation of economic growth fuels higher revenues from capital-gains tax. Once again, we would see what might appear, from looking at the government deficit, to be an austerity-to-prosperity scenario.
Jaime Guajardo, Daniel Leigh, and Andrea Pescatori of the International Monetary Fund recently studied austerity plans implemented by governments in 17 countries in the last 30 years. But their approach differed from that of previous researchers. They focused on the government’s intent, and looked at what officials actually said, not just at the pattern of public debt. They read budget speeches, reviewed stability programmes, and even watched news interviews with government figures. They identified as austerity plans only those cases in which governments imposed tax hikes or spending cuts because they viewed it as a prudent policy with potential long-term benefits, not because they were responding to the short-term economic outlook and sought to reduce the risk of overheating.
Their analysis found a clear tendency for austerity programmes to reduce consumption expenditure and weaken the economy. That conclusion, if valid, stands as a stern warning to policymakers today.
But critics, such as Valerie Ramey of the University of California at San Diego, think that Guajardo, Leigh, and Pescatori have not completely proven their case. It is possible, Ramey argues, that their results could reflect a different sort of reverse causality if governments are more likely to respond to high public-debt levels with austerity programmes when they have reason to believe that economic conditions could make the debt burden especially worrisome.
That may seem unlikely – one would think that a bad economic outlook would incline governments to postpone, rather than accelerate, austerity measures. And, in response to her comments, the authors did try to account for the severity of the government’s debt problem as perceived by the markets at the time that the plans were implemented, finding very similar results. But Ramey could be right. One would then find that government spending cuts or tax hikes tend to be followed by bad economic times, even if the causality runs the other way.
Ultimately, the problem of judging austerity programmes is that economists cannot run fully controlled experiments. When researchers tested Prozac on depressed patients, they divided their subjects randomly into control and experimental groups, and conducted many trials. We cannot do that with national debt.
So do we have to conclude that historical analysis teaches us no useful lessons? Do we have to return to the abstract reasoning of Mandeville and some of his successors, including John Maynard Keynes, who thought that there were reasons to expect that austerity would produce depressions?
There is no abstract theory that can predict how people will react to an austerity programme. We have no alternative but to look at the historical evidence. And the evidence of Guajardo and his co-authors does show that deliberate government decisions to adopt austerity programmes have tended to be followed by hard times.
Policymakers cannot afford to wait decades for economists to figure out a definitive answer, which may never be found at all. But, judging by the evidence that we have, austerity programmes in Europe and elsewhere appear likely to yield disappointing results.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2012.