Bees pollinate 71 of the 100 types of crops that provide 90% of the world’s food. They also help preserve biodiversity and the beauty of the natural world by pollinating wild plants.
But climate change, pesticides and parasites are wreaking havoc on bees and they need protection, European beekeepers who are holding their annual congress in Quimper, western France, said this week.
The congress was an opportunity for beekeepers and scientists to address key concerns, with some European beekeepers experiencing “significant deaths and disastrous harvests due to difficult climatic conditions”.
The European Union, the world’s second largest importer of honey, currently produces only 60% of what it consumes.
French beekeepers, for example, expect to harvest 12,000 to 14,000 metric tons of honey this year, down from the 30,000 tons they harvested in the 1990s, according to the National Union of French Beekeepers (UNAF).
“I have been fighting for bees for 30 years, but if I had to choose now, I don’t know if I would be a beekeeper,” said UNAF spokesman Henri Clement, who has 200 hives in the Cevennes region. Southeast of France.
Clement is 62 years old and very close to retirement.
“But it is not so fun for young people who want to do this profession.
The many topics buzzing around the congress were proof of this – pesticides, climate change and Asian hornets, parasitic varroa mites and hive beetles, all invasive aliens in Europe.
Challenges include rain, drought
American entomologist Jeff Pettis, president of Apimondia, an international federation of beekeeping associations in 110 countries, said with climate change, “the biggest problem is just erratic weather and rainfall patterns, droughts and things like that.”
“In certain places the plants were used to a certain temperature. And now it’s rising and you have a hot dry summer and no flowers,” Pettis told AFP.
No flowers means no pollen, which means the bees are starving.
Climate scientists say human-caused global warming is increasing extreme weather events, such as floods and heat waves that fuel wildfires.
“Fires seem to be a big problem,” Pettis said. “They come sporadically and we lose hives directly to floods and fires.
Pettis, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist, published a 2016 study on the quality of pollen produced by goldenrod, a hardy perennial known as soldago that produces large numbers of small yellow daisy-like flowers.
The study showed that the more carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas – accumulates in the atmosphere, the lower the protein content of goldenrod pollen.
North American bees depend on a diet of goldenrod pollen to get them through the winter, Pettis said.
“Getting cheap food … should affect overwintering. It could happen with other pollen sources. We don’t know.”
As in France, 30% to 40% of hives in the United States die each winter, Pettis said, driven by varroa mites, pesticides and the destruction of wild areas where wild plants grow.
“There are even American startups today that are developing drones to pollinate plants in the place of bees. It’s absolutely terrifying,” Clement said.
Toxic pesticides are another factor that destroys bee colonies and other pollinating insects.
Jean-Marc Bonmatin, a French molecular biophysicist, said that parasites such as varroa are “increased by the presence of neonicotinide pesticides, which directly poison pollinators”.
Chemically similar to nicotine, neonicotinoids are systemic pesticides.
Unlike contact pesticides that remain on the surface of treated leaves, systemic pesticides are taken up by the plant and transported to its leaves, flowers, roots and stems, as well as pollen and nectar.
Bonmatin said that these toxic substances can remain in the soil for 5 to 30 years.
The EU restricted the use of three neonicotinoids in 2013 – but not all – and banned them completely in 2018.
But since 2013, several EU countries have repeatedly issued “emergency permits” to use harmful insecticides on key crops.
He said an open-source software called Toxibee will soon be available to help farmers protect bees by identifying the least toxic molecules to use in their crops.
“They can try to limit the harmful effects of pesticides before spraying them on crops,” he said. Because one day killing bees will also harm people’s health.”
Still, Pettis tried to remain optimistic, pointing to some ways people can help bees.
“[We should] diversify agriculture and don’t work [to] chemical-dependent agriculture should be managed and organic and more sustainable farming should be supported.”
He also highlighted the incredible resilience of some bee species, aided by factors in the natural world.
He cited an example of a black bee found in Ile de Groix in Brittany that survived varroa attacks without the beekeepers treating them for mites or giving them extra food.
“We think bees depend on us, but in fact they live quite well without us,” he said. “And you still have the beauty of bees. Working with bees is a wonderful thing.”