Guest blog – Protecting Scotland’s honeybees by Callum MacGregor

Callum Macgregor is a postdoctoral researcher, currently based at the University of York. His research interests cover the ecology and conservation of pollinators (especially butterflies and moths) under the influence of human-induced environmental change. In his private life, that passion for insects extends to all wildlife, especially birds, and a particular enthusiasm for raptors and owls has led him to support the #BanDGS campaign. You can find him on Twitter at @Macgregor_Cal.


“Protecting Scotland’s honeybees” – but at what cost?

I have tried to link to my sources wherever possible in this blog. In another hat, I am an active promoter of ‘open science’ – the work of most scientists in the UK is publicly-funded and I believe that, by rights, the public should have free access to read their results. I’ve made every effort to choose sources for this blog that are available for all to read – either Open Access scientific papers, reputable journalistic reports, or bloggers that I trust. In a few cases, though, some of you will hit the academic paywall, and will only be able to read the article abstract. For this I apologise.

Last week, the Raptor Persecution UK blog reported on a reception hosted by the pro-driven grouse shooting ‘The Gift of Grouse’ organisation at Holyrood. RPUK were invited along by Andy Wightman MSP (Scottish Greens); besides them, the event was attended by a (small) number of MSPs, and a range of parties with vested interests in driven grouse shooting. Their report on the event is well worth a read. For me, as an ecologist whose research interests tie into the conservation of wild pollinators, one thing in particular caught my attention.

Among several photos taken at the event by RPUK was one showing a pamphlet handed out by The Gift of Grouse at the event (that photo is reproduced here by kind permission of RPUK). The pamphlet details the ways in which grouse moors are, apparently, conservation hotspots (though RPUK themselves have previously debunked the line referring to 81 bird species), and makes the claim that grouse moors contribute to the “conservation of heather moorland – essential to the production of heather honey and protecting Scotland’s honeybees”.

Photo: RaptorPersecutionUK


Honey bee woes

It turns out that grouse-shooters have been pushing this angle for a couple of years at least (and regular readers of RPUK will be intrigued to see the prominence of the Hopes Estate in the linked article). You can certainly understand why proponents of grouse shooting would want to jump on this particular bandwagon. Recent declines in honey bees are widely reported in the media. As recently as 2014, a poll by Yougov found the British public considered declining bees to be the most important environmental issue of all – more so even than climate change – and bees to be the single species most worthy of conserving. The hysteria centres around so-called “Colony Collapse Disorder”, a phenomenon where honey bee hives are abandoned by their worker caste. In 2007, American bee-keepers first reported much higher losses of overwintering hives than expected. Problems have continued since then, with neonicotinoid pesticides and varroa mites the most high-profile suspects among a wide range of candidate causes.

People are rightly concerned, because honey bees are important – enormously so. Around 35% of global production comes from crops that are dependent on pollination by animals; and no animal species makes a larger contribution to this figure than honey bees. In the UK, bee-pollinated crops include such favourites as strawberries and apples, as well as the oil-seed rape that paints vast swathes of the English countryside in yellow every year. Their economic contribution is huge.

So you might be surprised that two weeks ago, an article was published in the highly-regarded journal Science arguing that declines in honey bees should not be viewed as a conservation concern (the paper itself is behind a paywall, but you can read the authors’ press release). The authors (Jonas Geldmann and Juan González-Varo, both researchers at Cambridge University) make a strong case that we should view the provision of crop pollination in agricultural settings as an entirely separate issue to the conservation of wild, native pollinators (and they are not the first to tackle this issue). They argue that, in settings where honey bees are not actively contributing to agricultural production, they do more harm than good.

Conserving wild pollinators

Like honey bees, wild bees (which also contribute to pollination) are also in decline. So are moths, butterflies, hoverflies – in fact, almost all of the main groups of pollinating insects. Back in the autumn, a study showing that flying insects had declined by 75% on German nature reserves made the front pages. The causes of these declines are likely to overlap heavily with the factors threatening honey bees – for instance, neonicotinoids are also thought to be important here. But crucially, honey bees themselves are also thought to play a role in these declines. Their impact is twofold – providing competition to wild pollinators for access to pollen and nectar, and introducing and spreading diseases to wild populations as beehives are moved from place to place. These effects can even cascade further into ecosystems, as declines in wild pollinators cause reduced reproductive success in native flowers that are unable to fully benefit from honey bee pollination.

Therefore, our actions in different places and habitats should be determined by our goals. If the goal is to boost crop pollination, then we should treat honey bees for what they are – a managed agricultural animal, like cows or chickens. This is not such a far-fetched comparison as it might seem. Beekeepers move their hives around to make the most of available resources, such as mass-flowering crops (in the process, boosting pollination in those crops, with tangible economic benefits to farmers). They medicate them to stave off the diseases that always accompany unnaturally high densities of animals, and artificially supplement their diets when food is scarce. There is no such thing as a wild honey bee in the UK, and they might not even be native. We should be viewing Colony Collapse Disorder solely as a veterinary problem.

Going to the heather

On the other hand, if the goal is to conserve pollinators, then we should do what’s best for wild pollinators. In part, that means increasing not just the quantity, but also the diversity, of flowers. This brings us back around to grouse moors, which do provide an enormous amount of nectar for a short period in August – in simple terms of the quantity of nectar provision, heather is one of the biggest producers in the UK. Some beekeepers take advantage of this, by “going to the heather”. The result is a high-end product that supermarkets sell for 3-4 times more than basic ‘mixed blossom’ equivalents. It’s nice – I have a jar in my cupboard (though it’s not from a grouse moor!).

The impacts of grouse-moor management – particularly muirburn – on floral diversity are complex. In naturally fire-prone ecosystems, such as the Mediterranean, wildfires are an important source of disturbance. Many annual plant species have evolved to respond to fires by flowering, which can lead to much greater quantity and diversity of flowers in the years immediately following a fire – though research I am currently involved in suggests that not all wild pollinators are able to capitalise on this. Through these processes, naturally-occurring fires of a range of sizes and with different time intervals between them (termed ‘high pyrodiversity’) can lead to an improvement in landscape-level biodiversity.

But Britain’s upland ecosystems are not naturally fire-prone, so much of the native flora is not adapted to recover. Moreover, muirburn leads to fires of roughly controlled size at controlled intervals – and so, very low pyrodiversity. A 2011 study led by researchers from the University of Liverpool reported that muirburn does maintain the current level of floral diversity, preventing a complete monoculture of heather; but that this current level of diversity is severely degraded compared to what our uplands should naturally look like (a topic covered on Mark’s blog previously). Moorlands are also less botanically diverse than other semi-natural or natural upland habitat types (see section 3.2.5 of the RSPB’s 2012 review of grouse moor biodiversity).

The problem with this low plant diversity is that nectar resources may be in short supply outside of the relatively short flowering period of heather, especially in the hugely-important springtime. Pollinators need a range of flowers, blooming at different times throughout the summer, to provide a constant supply of food. Beekeepers can time their visits to coincide with the heather. Wild bees don’t have that luxury, and those that are present will need to make the most of the temporary glut. Honey bees will provide competition during this time for floral resources and introduce diseases that will harm native moorland pollinators. Other aspects of grouse moors are also problematic – for example, the lack of trees is likely to exclude the many species of solitary bees (and one bumblebee) that nest in tree holes. We are talking about a worst-case scenario on grouse moors for wild bees and other pollinators – a degraded version of an already low-quality habitat. To argue that this is important for production of heather honey is perhaps true. To argue that it is vital to the conservation of honey bees is like saying that we should protect grassy pastures – for the benefit of cows.

Regular readers of Mark’s blog will be well aware that grouse-shooting interests often try to paint themselves as ‘conservationists’, with the best interests of upland wildlife at heart. They will also be aware that these claims are frequently misplaced: being generous, they appear to be based on a fundamentally-flawed view of what a healthy upland ecosystem should look like. The Gift of Grouse’s claim that grouse moors help honey bees seems to be another example of a wildly misguided attempt to align grouse-shooting with conservation interests. Please don’t fall for it!


36 Replies to “Guest blog – Protecting Scotland’s honeybees by Callum MacGregor”

  1. The co-evolution between many of our wild pollinators with particular flowers is one of the great delights of the natural world. Are there particular insect species that specialise on any of the upland moorland Ericaceous species and if so how are they faring in face of intensive grouse farming?
    In short, are there quick and easy ways of sussing invertebrate biodiversity on grouse moors by looking for such species? (For example, a nice indicator down here on the lowland heaths, is to check each spring’s crop of Bilberry flowers for the co-evolved, rather local, solitary bee, Andrena lapponica. Despite being dark, small and samey, it is easily spotted because its pollen sacks are white with the Bilberry’s pollen.)

    Thank you, Callum for your work and for this important article and for setting out the issues so clearly – especially for putting the honey bee, a ‘super-generalist flower raider’, in its proper place.

    1. Hi Murray – thanks for your positive feedback! My knowledge of solitary bees is not as detailed as I’d like, but globally there are lots of specialists on bilberry and other Vaccinium species (including, as you’ve said, A. lapponica). We have two bumblebees that also like bilberry. Bilberry bumblebee (!) is “localised and declining” (; Heath bumblebee seems to be of less concern ( – but its distribution map is intriguing as it looks to be primarily found in the parts of Scotland that are managed for deer-stalking more than grouse-shooting. We also have Andrena fuscipes which is a heather specialist, and unsurprisingly is doing fairly well (though apparently is more localised than its habitat in the north of Scotland). However, Lasioglossum prasinum also favours heather but is restricted to southern England and Wales.

      1. Thanks for that extra detail Callum.
        My knowledge however is zero plus one – A. lapponica is the only solitary bee I’m reasonably sure about. Also, this lovely sounding Latin name has been easy to remember over the years thanks to a local entomologist who once pointed out this creature and its habits.

      2. It’s good that you mention Lasioglossum prasinum as it highlights one of your points well: this species has a very long flight-period, which means that the individual females are alive for longer than the heather is in flower*. This demonstrates nicely the need for increased floristic diversity to provide sufficient food throughout the spring/summer/early autumn.

        The Bilberrry bumblebee is another example which is relevant to upland habitats: the colony lifespan is 3-4 months**.


  2. Great article Callum – thoughtful, balanced and, above all, carefully referenced. But then I’d expect nothing less from you!

  3. For many years conservation organisations have encouraged partnership working with private landowners. Euphemistic language has been used to try and convince the public (who primarily fund conservation organisations) that by working together (partnerships) land management on private Estates can promote wildlife conservation. Landowners in turn peddle out an outdated colonial style myth of the “countryman” who knows how to manage land properly and townies couldn’t possibly understand “country way” This is now evident in the narrative of protecting wildlife conservation on the private estates. A short walk across any upland or indeed a chat with a gamekeeper should dispel that myth.

    It is important to highlight the difference between managed honey bees and wild bees and pollinator populations with the general public so they can recognise a smokescreen when it’s presented to them.

    Very interesting blog post, thank you.

    1. Emma, I don’t think that working with landowners is as binary as you put it. I can’t speak for the uplands (the Moorland Association seems to make your case for you there) but I can think of many decent lowland landowners I’ve known and worked with over the years. I’ve encountered some truly terrible ones too of course – but I’ve never been asked to work “In Partnership” with them. The out-and-out criminality apparent on grouse moors isn’t reflective of most landowners, not the ones I’ve known anyway.

      In any case, since private owners own most of the land, conservation organisations have to work with them to get anything done whether we like it or not. And some, like Charlie Burrell of Knepp Estate, have done brilliant things that the UK conservation organisations have never had the guts to try themselves.

      I haven’t had many dealings with gamekeepers – again my experience is all lowland south of England – but the few I have encountered have been fine, certainly as far as protecting birds of prey have been concerned.

      In my experience, the decent landowners are not the ones who go on about townies and “real countrymen”. That’s the ironic preserve of people with London money, as the map of pro DGS petition signatories shows.

      Oh, and not all landowners are pro hunting either, whatever the likes of the Countryside Alliance claims. Don’t take the CA’s propaganda at face value – we need all the allies we can get.

  4. Excellent blog Callum! Every time the ‘gift of grouse’ is scrutinised it turns out to be rather smaller and meaner than it’s made out to be by its ‘generous’ donors – a bit like one of those joke presents where each time you tear off a layer of wrapping paper you find another layer underneath!

    Away from the grouse moors it is perhaps worth commenting that much of what one would look to do to ‘save honey bees’ will also be beneficial to other pollinator insects (and ecosystems in general) i.e. promote and improve natural flowering plant diversity, control the use of neonicotinoids and other insecticides and so on.

    1. Absolutely. A prime example is the wildflower margins of arable fields managed under agri-environment schemes – pollination of the crop is improved, and the abundance and diversity of wild pollinators (not just bumble bees, but butterflies, moths, etc.) goes up as well.

  5. Callum that was fantastic! In wildlife gardening they say you should plant a wide range of flowers to provide for a wide range of pollinators over the full season so even a council estate scruff with a c grade pass in Higher Biology like me always found the claims made by the DGS lot very hard to swallow – hills turning purple for a few weeks is reminiscent of a crop not a wildlife habitat, so it’s great to hear this from an expert at long, long last. Even the species that like heather can’t have much else to live on when it’s not in flower. So it looks as if many pollinator species are seriously compromised over vast swathes of upland Britain? I hadn’t thought about the role trees and shrubs play in nesting habitat for pollinators (bit thick of me TBH) so that’s a very good new point for me to consider and relay. I know that the RSPB is now aiming to get 5% of its chalk grassland covered in scrub to improve the habitat mosaic and have a bit more of an edge effect – no longer big fields with not so much as one bush on them. Even more open habitats usually have some tree cover as our moors should have. I love the term ‘pyrodversity’ never heard of it before and if that’s what we really had on the grouse moors then juniper wouldn’t be so rare. How much would pollinators in the uplands be helped if you had pockets of woodland/scrub with ivy? Even in Scotland in mid November I’ve seen clouds of insects hovering over its flowers – a sight I haven’t seen with anything else even in mid summer here? The grouse moors are a conservation desert and a few waders doing well, sometimes, on some less intensively ‘managed’ moors won’t make up for that. Well done for sticking your neck out, more professionals need to do the same they aren’t achieving anything by keeping quiet – we need to have similar discussion on bats, aquatic life etc in the uplands too.

    1. Most chalk downland managers would be delighted to have only 5% scrub. Only 10% would be an improvement for the sites I know. I used to manage some of them and I can assure you that clearing scrub is much easier than preventing it from springing back up again.

      The constant rain of fertilizer from the atmosphere (from general agricultural excesses plus NOx from vehicles) makes it very hard to prevent scrub growth without really hard grazing – which has adverse impacts of its own, on invertebrates particularly. Most sites have inherited historic nutrient enrichment and scrub seedbank from the neglect before they became nature reserves which doesn’t help either.

      There was a recent “revelation” that landscape-scale use of pesticides may be far worse than small site-scale studies show. Same is true of landscape-scale intensive fertilizer use I’m sure.

      But we stray – fab article Callum, I wasn’t previously aware that bees were an issue on grouse moors one way or the other! Thank you.

      1. I’ve done a wee bit of scrub clearance myself, to prevent peat bogs drying out mainly and I know there’s a constant problem with it encroaching on grasslands and other open areas. But at the same time there’s been a bit of a puritanism about having any trees/scrub on open habitats, not unusual to see pictures of meadow with not one bush from one corner of the field to the other and to some people that’s the ideal. I believe George Monbiot recently had a serious crack at a nature reserve (a BBONT one I think) where this was pretty much the case. Of course the most extreme purveyors of this are the grouse moors who in almost the same breath tell us they are great for conservation by creating a habitat mosaic and by clearing away bracken and scrub!

    2. Thanks Les. A good point about ivy – where it grows it’s a hugely important resource to insects in autumn. Looking at its distribution map (, there’s a big old hole in the centre of Scotland. I guess that could be something to do with soil/altitude/winter cold/winter snow cover etc. But I can’t imagine it flourishes under muirburn either – it “shows low tolerance of fire when it does burn [but] is slow to burn and will not readily spread fire well” (

      1. That’s interesting Callum thanks – I suspect that absence in central Scotland is pretty much down to grouse moors it’s easy to see them as a barren upland ‘wilderness’ and difficult to realize what many of them would be like if they were the product of purely natural processes. My friend Ron Greer has done some fantastic pioneering work showing that woodland can grow and prosper at higher altitudes than had been previously imagined in the Highlands – some of his pictures of what happens after a few years in enclosed ground are staggering, even on scree patches. I’m sure that clumps of hawthorn, honeysuckle and ivy etc would be brilliant even as occasional patches on grouse moors.

  6. Great work Callum,nice to see the non existent science behind that gift of grouse crap taking yet another beating from real science . Very embarrassing that Holyrood still acknowledge this rubbish,despite it now being totally discredited yet they still troop it out every year . Shows you the power behind the grouse lobby and the gullibility (or is it collusion) of the SNP.
    The plight of the honey bee from chemicals across Europe and the world still a grave concern however. We need to put all our resources of time, money and effort into invaluable research rather than into producing things to kill for fun. I dispair that we as a species will ever waken up before its too late.

  7. Great blog Callum. There is a push to regenerate blanket bog particularly in South Pennines and Peak. Moors for the Future guidance says a higher water table will lead to increased tipulid numbers (crane fly). Do you think wetter moors will lead to a general increase in insect numbers and in particular more pollinators?

    1. Great question, and I’m not really sure of the answer. I would guess that there would be winners and losers. For example I imagine that a higher water table would reduce the availability of nesting sites for ground-nesting bees. On the other hand, higher water-tables should lead to more diverse habitats and plants, so on the whole plant-feeding (phytophagous) insects might increase. For example I would expect Large Heath butterfly to do well (albeit not in the Pennines, without a reintroduction!) as its larval hostplants are all associated with boggy habitat.

  8. I’m afraid I am not going to read it. I cannot take seriously the conservation views of someone who not only thinks that having a captive Barn Owl is acceptable, but that it is a good thing to be photographed with it, smiling.

    1. Fair enough, Andy – each to their own views. The bird is not mine but I met her on a visit to Bridlington Animal Park. She is captive-bred and seemed happy and healthy – as far as one can judge these things without the capacity to talk to animals! Personally I would prefer a (seemingly) happy, captive-bred Barn Owl to one abandoned to die after having both legs broken in a trap ( I also, personally, think that places like these play a valuable role by connecting members of the public (especially families with children) with conservation issues, including raptor persecution, that they might not otherwise be aware of. But I respect that others don’t share that view.

      1. Interesting replies from all. Callum, of course I don’t want Barn Owls to die from injuries caused by traps. But keeping them in captivity is not really the answer we are looking for, is it? All such places – call them animal parks, rescue centres, whatever – have evolved from the Victorian notion of the zoo where people can go to see animals they wouldn’t see otherwise and can therefore be “educated”. The upsurge in concern about the welfare of such animals led to zoos having to provide better facilities for the animals in their care and to promote the educational value of keeping animals. It also led to a greater emphasis on the breeding of endangered species – as rather testily put by Welsh Snipe. It is my opinion that keeping animals in captivity other than for that reason is no longer acceptable. The educational advantage of keeping say, giraffes, falls on two counts. First, our opportunities to see superb moving images of animals is unparalleled today. Second, in what way is it educational to see an animal in an enclosure, in different habita and ecological surroundings? The whole point of conservation is that it is habitat that we must conserve, not species or individuals – a point very well made by Chris Packham about Giant Pandas. No point in breeding them if there is nowhere to put them back to. Other points made; yes, maybe I’ve erred by judging the writer by a photo. Logical fallacy? Don’t think so. I didn’t make a logical connection between the photo and the text – at least, I didn’t mean to! I suppose that I wanted to make the point that it’s all very well to pen an (apparently excellent) article on one aspect of conservation without considering other aspects. So, Callum et al. I’ll retract “cannot take seriously the conservation views” and replace it with “disappointed with the choice of photo and its implications.”

    2. So you don’t take Packham and Attenborough very seriously then, do you? Or the myriad of conservationist that have, in the past, and still do, keep animals?

      Yes, those dam pesky captive birds that have contributed to the conservation of their species, through providing offspring for release, and interaction, education, and inspiration for those that may not have access to such species in any other way.

      1. Apart from reading my reply above, can you provide me with a figure for the number of captive-bred Barn Owls released into the wild in, say, the last ten years, please.

    3. It is difficult to take the views seriously of someone who apparently thinks he can judge the merits of someone else’s views or arguments without even taking the trouble to read or hear them. Whatever the rights and wrongs of keeping owls captive has it never occurred to you that it is possible to agree with a person about one thing whilst disagreeing about another?

      1. Good point! I will read it. Actually, I just have – and I knew most of the facts anyway. I gave up beekeeping after five years here when I a) read about pressure on other nectar-gathering species (although I only had five hives) and b) noticed that I hadn’t seen Great Yellow Bumblebee in my garden or on my land for a couple of years.

    4. The classic ad hominen logical fallacy. That the author posed with a captive Barn Owl has nothing whatsoever to do with the validity of their argument.

  9. Great post. Locally we have taken on board the issue of wild bees needing food sources throughout the whole season. We don’t have any moorland near to us but we do have great swaths of rape growing locally but this is of limited help to wild bees so we have started an initiative called Bee Roads to encourage local partners to plant bee friendly plants that cover the whole period from early Spring to late Autumn. Good to see that this seems to fit in with what Callum is talking about.

  10. Nearly forty years ago, I moved into a fifteenth century Elizabethan structure, that had a colony of
    “wild honey bees”.
    This was situated behind stonework in an ornamental turret on the roof, in warm weather a quite strong, sweet, smell was most noticeable. The nest was far too deep in the wall to be reached.
    The colony had “always been there”, and was subject to periodic die offs, with hundreds of bee’s littering the floor.
    The area has never had a great history of bee keeping, there is a non-intensively managed grouse moor about a mile away, hives are brought in most summers, but this colony far pre – dates any of this.
    I suppose it would have only taken one swarm, from a local cottagers skep however many years ago,to have found its way into the turret.
    The building is now a holiday let, the bee’s though never molested have, I understand, greatly reduced in number.
    I will try to obtain some dead one’s this year, and hope to identify them.

    1. Honeybees are a native species to this country, and all colonies would have been wild prior to their being a kept species. Although their dynamics and ecology must have been very different when they were purely a wild species.

  11. A truly excellent article. Ecologically literacy at it’s very best with fully joined up thinking. A big thanks to Mark for publishing this guest blog. So many descriptions leave me frustrated because of their partiality, and how they don’t take into account parts of the ecological big picture.

    I particularly like the important description of how pollinators need a flowering plants throughout their entire flying period, and not just one abundant source during one short interval in their flying time. As pointed out pollinators are very diverse, and whilst many have discrete periods in which they are flying, pollinators as a whole have a much longer flight period during which they need to sustain themselves. I also enjoyed the bit pyrodiversity, and open access, plus much more.

    Those familiar with my commenting on the Guardian in the past re: pollinators, will be well aware that I repeatedly made these points about Honeybees.

    That grouse moor managers have fallen into the Honeybee trap is undoubtedly due to their simplistic mindset about the natural world. They simplistically see species in terms of good and bad, and Honeybees fit right in with their thinking, because they are managed by people, for people.

    One thing which occurs to be is that systematic Heather burning must have a big impact on wild pollinators by killing huge numbers of them in the pupae phase. I’ve never really got to grips with the taxonomy of wild bees, but I’ve enjoyed photographing them, and observing them, on moorland and heathland. Surely the shallow nest burrows they create must be badly effected by regular burning?

    1. “Heather burning must have a big impact on wild pollinators by killing huge numbers of them in the pupae phase.”

      Yes indeed. It has been posited by Roy Leverton that the disappearance of the Small Lappet Moth from the Yorkshire Moors in the 19th Century was likely to have been to a large extent due to the increasingly wide-scale heather burning practiced as driven grouse shooting developed and increased in popularity from the 1860s onwards. This moth appears to have a preference for laying its eggs in older growth heather and bilberry – exactly the habitat that would be next in line for burning in the muirburn rotation.

    1. As a beekeeper I am used to reading articles published by the BBKA and thought your blog made some interesting points which I had not previously considered.

      You mention that it is not far fetched to consider managed Honey Bees to be similar to agricultural animals. Defra consider them to be livestock, which is why they appoint and pay bee inspectors to carry out colony inspections.

      I agree that Honey Bees compete with wild pollinators over food sources, however, this would only seem to be a problem in a landscape where nectar and pollen are scarce. Beekeepers have kept Honey Bees in the UK for centuries and there are many fewer colonies kept now than say 100 years ago.
      So could it be that our countryside is now so damaged and depleted that it can no longer provide adequate forage for both managed and wild pollinators.

      Regarding taking colonies “to the heather” some beekeepers advise against this practice as it involves moving colonies to locations where bees will come into contact with other relocated bees which could be carrying diseases.


      John Ball

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