The British honey bee population could be wiped out if the Government presses ahead with plans to slash funding to help control deadly diseases, Midland bee keepers have warned.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs plans to cut £225,000 from the £1.25 million annual budget of its Honeybee Health Programme by 2008, sacking half its 40-strong staff of bee inspectors.
However beekeepers say the inspectors are frontline experts who play a vital role in helping them fight diseases, such as American foul brood, European foul brood and varroasis, which could destroy the bee population.
There is also the looming threat of the small hive beetle spreading from Europe or the USA.
Richard Lindsey, from Solihull, who is a bee inspector for Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire, said the bee population in the Midlands was under attack from diseases such as European foul brood (EFB).
He said: "Bee keeping is in trouble. It is not just the fact we are getting this cut - the biggest problem is funds to the bee unit are systematically being cut on the quiet.
"Resources were cut by five per cent a few years ago and the unit has had a noninflation rise every year. With costs and wages going up, this is another cut.
"It is going to have a dramatic effect on honey production and bee life is already on a knife-edge."
Mr Lindsey said the hours bee inspectors work had already been reduced, and most of his time was spent fighting off diseases in areas of the region.
"I am merely firefighting at the moment. Disease is rife but we are just about managing to keep a lid on it at the moment." A spokeswoman for Defra said Food and Farming Minister Lord Bach would meet representatives from the Warwickshire-based British Beekeepers Association ( BBKA) later this year to discuss the issue.
She said a review of the research into diseases such as EFB would be carried out before the cuts are made.
"We plan to introduce the cuts in 2008 of £225,000 from budget of £1.235 million, which will will reduce the bee inspectors by half. This is taxpayers' money so obviously the Minister has to be positive of how that is best spent.
"He is very concerned about the beekeepers and within the next three years will focus on a research and development programme looking at the disease.
"A research programme will look at controlling EFB and if it has reduced by 2008 we can make the cuts because we won't need the bee inspectors to control this particular disease."
Michael Badger, vice chairman of the BBKA, said the Government had hoped to push through the cuts quietly.
"When they started this ten months ago they thought it would be and open and shut case. They thought we would just roll over and they have been taken aback with the response. Lord Bach has been caught on the back foot and suddenly realised we won't let go and he has agreed to meet us."