IRRIDESCENT blue lights guide Lynn Laurenson as she feeds the insatiable appetite of the robot. There are only a handful like this one in the world, and it is dedicated to honeybees.

It is a one-stop shop for bee health – a high-tech test tube. Lynn selects a plastic plate which looks like a giant hair brush. It has almost 400 compartments, each holding DNA or fragments of mites and parasites. Lynn and her team can identify if the samples have any of 18 diseases or viruses.

This pipetting robot is one of the weapons used by The National Bee Unit (NBU) in the war against bee pestilence. The team of ten can all on state-of-the-art molecular technology, alongside more traditional diagnosis with microscopes.

And amid media reports which suggest honeybees are dying out, the NBU, based at the Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera) site, at Sand Hutton, near York, is there to make sure the bees survive.

Diseases have always been a problem, but until the 1990s, beekeepers managed to keep on top of most of them. Then a blood-sucking mite arrived and turned the bee world on its head.

The voracious varroa destructor can only reproduce in honeybee colonies. The western variety is defenceless against the parasite and if a colony is infested it will die unless treated.

“Varroa was the 1066 of the beekeeping world; the invader changed everything,” says NBU head, Mike Brown. “Now it is more difficult to keep colonies going. Varroa highlighted the need to provide the support, research and advice that we do here.”

The Government has been looking after bee health for half a century, but the NBU is unique. Charged with advising on best practice for bee-keepers, its world class research helps not only hobbyists, but the agricultural industry, too.

Although bees are no bigger than a thumbnail, they punch well above their weight, being worth an estimated £200 million a year to British farmers.

This is not only from sales of honey. Apples, onions, cabbages and soft fruits rely on the honeybee to for pollination, as do most types of animal feed. Without bees, food would be scarcer and prices would soar. At around £2.8million, the NBU’s annual budget looks good value for money.

“Bees help us to get our five-a-day and they need our help to get theirs,” says Mike, who has 28 years of beekeeping experience.

“The most important part of our work is surveillance and research into how diseases spread.”

So important that the NBU set up BeeBase, an online database for bee-keepers. Mike says it is vital that every keeper registers their apiary on it. If they don’t, new threats could potentially wipe out not only their own colonies, but many nearby.

This is because bee husbandry is not like livestock farming. If foot and mouth breaks out, cattle are sealed off. Meanwhile a swarm of bees can spread lethal viruses like wildfire.

“To have a chance, any chance at all in eradicating a new threat, we need to know where the colony is,” says Mike. “We may have the best system in the world to protect infected bees, but if we are not looking in the right place, it’s of no use. That’s why we need to encourage everyone to register, to help us control the spread of disease.”

BeeBase has been such a success that last November it beat off 800 other nominations to win a civil service award.

Mike says: “BeeBase is a sophisticated IT system that contains all the information relating to the statutory bee health programme in England and Wales. It is important to be able to visit every apiary within an area of confirmed disease, so it is vital to have every colony logged onto BeeBase.”

As it happens, he believes that reports of the bee’s demise are premature. The numbers may have halved since the 1950s, but he says scare-mongering headlines paint a false picture.

“It’s not because they are dying out, that is only part of the picture. One of the reasons is that fewer people keep bees these days and our use of land is different. My grandfather kept them and so did my maths teacher. That’s when I first got the bug.

“Since then, interest has waned and with changes in agriculture there has been a gradual decline, although in recent years there has been a strong renewed interest in the craft which is great.”

But diseases and mites are always going to be a problem.

At Fera, Mike calls on as many people as he can for help, among them experts in entomology, molecular biology and pesticides etymology.

They identify samples and tell the NBU if there is something to worry about. So, a pollination crisis caused by extinct bees is not an imminent cause for concern; Mike is determined it never will be.

When the weather improves, virgin queen bees will fight one another for their colony’s crown and swarms of drones will vie for their attention as across the country another season begins – thanks to the hive of activity from Mike and his team based near York.

Fact file...

• THE National Bee Unit (NBU) delivers the Government’s bee health programmes in England and Wales. Its role is to protect the honeybee from threats such as serious disease and environmental damage.

The NBU has an integrated programme of inspections, diagnosis, research and training which is delivered by a team of bee scientists and experienced practical beekeepers.

The NBU provides training for beekeepers both in York and across the country where more than 60 inspectors are on hand to offer advice. It runs courses which help address subjects such as the recognition and management of honeybee disease and best practice for bee husbandry.

It also provides specialist advice and technical consultancy services on bee health to Government departments, beekeepers and industry.

• BEEBASE went live in 1992. It holds data on all inspections made by NBU staff, as well as laboratory samples submitted by beekeepers.

It is the only database of its kind in the world and gives beekeepers online access to diagnostic histories, pests and diseases. It also provides information on NBU activities, legislation and key contacts. You can register free online as a beekeeper and request a free apiary visit from your local inspector.

For more information, visit

• FERA was set up in 2009 to support and develop a sustainable food chain, a healthy natural environment, and to protect the global community from biological and chemical risks. Its laboratories near York help advise the public and private sectors.