Bees pollinate 71 of the 100 types of crops that provide 90 percent 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, according to European beekeepers holding their annual congress in Quimper, western France, this week.
The congress was an opportunity for beekeepers and scientists to try 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 percent of what it consumes.
French beekeepers, for example, expect to harvest 12,000 to 14,000 tons of honey this year, well below 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 Henri Clement, who owns 200 hives in UNAF’s unspoiled mountainous 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 evidence of this — Asian hornets, parasitic varroa mites and hive beetles (all invasive alien species in Europe), pesticides and climate change.
Regarding climate change, US entomologist Jeffery Pettis, president of Apimondia, an international federation of beekeeping associations in 110 countries, said, “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 fueling wildfires.
“Fires seem to be a big problem,” Pettis said. “They come sporadically, and we lose hives directly to floods and fires.”
– Pollen quality –
Pettis, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist, published a study in 2016 on the quality of pollen produced by goldenrod, a hardy perennial known as solidago that produces countless small, yellow, daisy-like flowers.
The study found that the more carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas — accumulated in the atmosphere, the less protein was found in goldenrod pollen.
Pettis explained that North American bees depend on a diet of goldenrod pollen to get them through the winter.
“Getting cheap food … should affect overwintering. It could happen with other pollen sources. We don’t know.”
As in France, 30 to 40 percent 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.
“Today, there are even American startups 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 “enhanced by the presence of neonicotinide pesticides, which directly poison pollinators”.
Chemically similar to nicotine, neonicotinides are systemic pesticides.
Unlike contact pesticides that remain on the surface of treated leaves, systemic pesticides are taken up by the plant and transported throughout the plant, into its leaves, flowers, roots and stems, as well as into 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 neonicotinides in 2013, but not all – in 2018 it banned them entirely.
But since 2013, several EU countries have repeatedly issued “emergency permits” to use harmful insecticides on staple crops.
– Restriction of toxic chemicals –
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 what kills bees will one day harm people’s health.”
Still, Pettis tried to remain optimistic, pointing to some ways people can help bees.
“(We) need to diversify agriculture and try not to be driven by chemically dependent agriculture, and support organic and more sustainable farming.”
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 on the island of 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 are doing very well without us,” he said.
“And you still have the beauty of bees. Working with bees is a wonderful thing.”