Is a World Without Bees Possible?
The figures are devastating: In France some 400 000 bee hives a year from a total 1.35 million, were lost between 1995 and 2005 according to a report by Arte TV.
Around 1500 beekeepers have abandoned this vital activity as scientists and others ask starkly: Is a world without bees possible? The Cite-Sciences website notes France is the biggest user in Europe of pesticides — 70 000-120 000 tonnes are sprayed or spread each year while globally the country ranks third after the U.S. and Japan in heavy use of chemicals in the food chain!
“More than 75% of the crops that feed humanity require pollination by insects, mainly bees and to a lesser extent wasps, butterflies and flies. Without bees, fruit crops (apples, cherries, strawberries …), vegetables (zucchini, tomatoes, peppers …) and oilseeds (rapeseed, sunflower) would be endangered. Economically, the impact of these pollinators has been estimated to be some 10% of the turnover of the whole of the world’s agriculture. While it is always possible to pollinate by hand (as is done for vanilla plants) or via specially bred bumblebees (as is done for greenhouse tomatoes), these techniques are unprofitable on a large scale,” an article on the site said.
The disappearance of bees would wipe out many plant species. This in turn would lead to the extinction of animal species in a cascading effect which, according Vendée beekeeper Aletru Franck, Vice President of Terre d’Abeilles, could ultimately affect the survival of mankind.
So what lies behind a phenomenon that is troubling farmers, scientists and beekeepers not only in France but worldwide?
One of the problems may be the Varroa mite which weakens the honeybee and spreads viral infections. It is present on all continents (except Australia) and carried by the transfer of breeding bees or hives around the countryside, a practise widespread in the US where such transportation for pollination of farmlands, is common.
The enormity of the problem came to light in October 2006 when David Hackenberg, a beekeeper from Florida, went to inspect his 3000 hives and was horrified to discover most of them were empty. Only the queen bee surrounded by a few newly hatched and healthy youngsters had survived. Since then, this scenario has repeated itself hive after hive with the latest estimates suggesting 1.5 million hives have disappeared across the U.S.
What has become identified as “Colony Collapse Disorder ” (CCD ) has actually existed for years, even decades according to one French scientist.
Yves Le Conte, director of research at the INRA Bee Station at Avignon France, says for more than 50 years beekeepers have reported an “incomprehensible disappearance of their bees. But without a proper monitoring system no real comparators are available”. “Most importantly”, he says , “no satisfactory explanation has yet been put forward to understand this massive depopulation.”
Most experts now look for a multi-factor explanation with research pointing the finger at a variety of environmental and manmade issues that combine to weaken the bees’ immune systems.
Among suspects, of course are pesticides, including those such as neonicotinoid (Gaucho) known to affect the direction and the ability of bees to return to their hives. This family of pesticide was held responsible for bee losses in France in the 1990s and by 1999, Gaucho had been banned in France for this reason. But no study has since assessed the impact of the ban on the mortality of French bee colonies
Finally, the pollution of ecosystems, reduction in size of habitats, the scarcity of plants that provide nectar and pollen, the emergence of invasive species (such as the Asian hornet), insecticide effects from GM crops, the release of a new protozoan pathogen ( Nosema ceranae ) or climate change have all been identified as possible reasons why bees are weakening with a consequent dramatic decline in population.
Our Grumpy Gardener Mike Alexander, has been out with French bee-keepers mounting the fightback, and writes:
I joined my local Ecole du Rucher after watching a documentary on the decline in the honey bee population world-wide. At one time this dramatic environmental threat to the globe’s most prolific pollinator was the subject of all sorts of documentaries and widespread coverage in just about every news paper or magazine with even the slightest interest in environmental issues. Since then it has fallen off the radar like so many other potential catastrophes — in vogue today but forgotten by tomorrow. However a rerun of the bees documentary on French Television served to remind me that the threat to honey bees has neither disappeared nor declined, so I contacted my local Ecole du Rucher to see if there was anything that I could do to help in some small way. The Ecole du Rucher system is run throughout France by amateur bee keepers with a passion for their fascinating subject and a desire to improve the lot of bees and the environment. Our group which meets once a month, is extremely welcoming and exposed me to a whole new world of which I was only vaguely aware. It turns out there is a great deal a householder can do to improve things not only for bees but also for the rapidly declining local honey industry. Bee colonies are threatened by disease, alien wasp predators and a vast array of local and imported viruses but it is colony collapse disorder that has put the honey bee under such huge pressure in recent years with whole colonies of bees just dying. The USA has lost two thirds of its managed honey bees in the last 50 years and over 90% of its feral bee population over the same period. Here in France we have lost 40% of our managed hives in the last decade. Frightening when you consider that one third of human nutrition is estimated to be as a direct result of honey bee pollination and the global economic value to man alone runs at around US$153 billion per year without regard to the spill over effect to other plants and animals in our complex ecosystem. All is not lost however and although the problem may have lost some of its former high public profile, there are still many concerned people and scientists out there who are doing their utmost to understand the problem and make the life of bees as healthy and prolific as possible. For those who live in France there are many ways to get involved and help turn this problem around. Many of us have gardens and by keeping just one hive we can make a great deal of difference with surprising little effort and the added bonus of pure, unadulterated, home made honey. Your local Ecole du Rucher will be only too pleased to advise you and provide huge amounts of eager support. If taking on a bee hive seems a little too intimidating why not look into planting bee-friendly plants in your garden, reducing the use of pesticides or at the very least buying pure honey from a local bee keeper. Much of the honey in the supermarkets is imported from countries that dilute it with sugar water or other products and you really have to have a sharp eye for the small print to realise that what you are buying is not the real thing. By supporting your local bee keeper you will be getting a pure far tastier and healthier product while doing something positive for the environment.
- “If the bees disappeared from the earth, man would have only a few years to live “, Albert Einstein is reputed once to have said. The famous scientist was probably exaggerating but, as beekeeper Franck Aletru notes : “his words are very close to the truth…”
Here is a list of Ecole du Rucher around the country
More useful local beekeeping sites:
Syndicat Apicole de Haute-Normandie
Civam Apicole de Haute Normandie
Abeilles & Essaim de DIEPPE
See also the earlier report on the costly campaign to eradicate Asian Hornets
Story: Mike Alexander
Our Grumpy Gardener has been professionally gardening in France for more years than he cares to remember and before that in Africa and the UK. Today he happily shares his expertise with French News Online readers, writing a monthly column for us on our main website. Visit our Grumpy Gardener column, by clicking this link.