More on historical honey bee numbers in Britain

Bees hives with earlier data points - 18th Nov

Following on from my post last week on historical changes in honey bee numbers in Britain, I decided to add the two extra, earlier data points to the graph just to illustrate what they mean for our understanding in how honey bee numbers may (or may not) have changed over the last 100 years.

The first data point is the Bailey & Perry (1982) estimate of 800,000 hives in the 1920s (which I’ve placed at 1929) that, as I mentioned, I think is wrong in terms of how they did the calculation.

The second data point is of 32,500 hives in 1919.  It’s from the article that Andrew Hubbard drew my attention to, which seems to be a fairly solid government statistic, or at least no less solid that much of the other government stats (unless anyone knows any better).

If we accept the 800,000 figure at face value then we see a massive increase in number of hives of over 76,000 new hives per year between 1919 and 1929.  And remember that’s being conservative as to what “the 1920s” meant to Bailey & Perry; if we peg the date at 1925 then we’re talking more than 127,000 hives being added to the British stock every year.  In my opinion that’s not a feasible proposition.

A much more likely scenario is that the number of hives grew during the second quarter of the 20th century and reached a peak in numbers at some point between the 1940s and 1950s.  That’s an increase of around 13,000 hives per year.  It’s still a lot, but is not unreasonable in light of post-World War 1, and subsequently World War 2, agricultural reforms that I highlighted in my post about British bee and flower-visiting wasp extinctions.   I’ve termed that “Jeff’s speculation” in the figure above because, in the absence of hard data, that’s all it can be.

As always, I welcome your comments.


15 thoughts on “More on historical honey bee numbers in Britain

  1. sleather2012

    Slightly somewhat tongue in cheek, The last volume of collected Sherlock Holmes stories published in 1917 has the detective keeping bees in his retirement. Perhaps it was a case of celebrity aping? 🙂

  2. tavascarow

    The peak in the 1940s was during the war.
    Beekeepers had extra sugar rations to winter feed their bees.
    From what I’ve read many people suddenly wanted to keep bees, not for the honey but the extra sugar ration that was traded on the black market.
    32,000 seems a very low figure for 1919 but as an afterthought maybe numbers would have been low then.
    Beekeeping was until recently a very male dominated recreation/occupation. Many of the fit young men of the nation never returned from the war. & the post war flu epidemic took its toll too. Beekeeping wasn’t a reserved occupation so no doubt a large number off beeks suddenly became extinct & their colonies would have died out through neglect.

  3. Jake Bobbe

    Hi Jeff, I am a final year undergraduate student at the University of Sussex, studying Geography BA. I am currently completing my dissertation on rewilding and conservation in general, I was wondering if I could email you a couple questions, so that I could possibly quote your thoughts on the biodiversity issues surrounding this form of conservation for my dissertation.

    Thanks in advance,



  4. Pingback: Have honey bees declined in Britain? An update of the numbers | Prof. Jeff Ollerton – ecological scientist and author

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