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Monday, 21 March 2011

To bee or not to bee: That’s the question.

You'll remember me when the west wind moves
Upon the fields of barley
You'll forget the sun in his jealous sky
As we walk in the fields of gold

There is an environmental problem going on in the world: very silently, but in theory with devastating results for agriculture all over the world and therefore extremely dangerous. And it’s not the nuclear power plant Fukushima Daiichi.

It is the slow, but steady disappearance of the honeybee. The small black and yellow striped insect that has an irreplacable roll in the fertilization of every crop that matters: wheat, corn, flowers, greenhouse and open field vegetables and fruit, you name it.

There are two causes for this disappearance: the varroa mite (a parasite) and the Colony Depopulation Syndrome (CDS), aka the Disappearance Disease.

What happens is that in wintertime hives of bees fly out of their beehive and disappear without a trace. This is called CDS. The Monitor Bee Mortality (link in Dutch) of the Dutch Center of Bee Research (NCB) has done research on this subject and came up with a report on this investigation. Here are some pertinent snips of this report that is a ‘must read’, but unfortunately in Dutch.:

Since the 1970’s the Varroa mite has been spread from Asia to other parts of the world, causing a significant and chronical mortality under bee hives. Besides that there is the last ten years an increase in bee mortality in many countries, uptil now unexplained. 
Noticeable is the disappearance of bee hives especially during wintertime, without dead bees being found in the beehive. Bee hives have an important role as fertilizer. Therefore there is a growing interest for the possible effects on the food supply of a decrease in the number of bee hives. Especially as other fertilizers are also dimishing in numbers. 
This was the reason for the investigation that has been executed during winter 2009 – 2010. This investigation led to the following conclusions (the most important ones are printed here - EL): 
-     Winter mortality under bee hives in winter 2009-2010 was 29.1% of the study population that was present in oktober 2009
-     The usage of a special bee sirup called Ambrosius Fructo-Bee caused a significant part of the winter mortality. Corrected for this part the winter mortality was 23.1%
-     There was no significant difference in mortality between bee-keepers that did or did not work in professional agricultural businesses.
-     There was no significant difference in winter mortality between the different breeds of bees Carnica, Buckfast or Hybrids / Race unknown.
-     Between the Dutch provinces there were significant differences: mortality in the province of Noord-Brabant was much higher than in Limburg or Gelderland.
-     There was no significant difference in mortality between bee-keepers that lost hives with CDS characteristics and bee-keepers that lost hives without CDS characteristics.
-     Bee-keepers that fought the varroa-mite in August had significantly less mortality than bee-keepers that fought the varroa-mite in September or October.
It must be explained that the purpose of this investigation of the NCB was not to find the cause for the Colony Depopulation Syndrome, or causes for other kinds of bee mortality. What the investigators did find out, however, was that the Ambrosius Fructo-Bee bee food cristallized too quickly in winter, causing the bee hives to starve in a significant number of cases. Therefore the investigation results were corrected whereever this kind of bee food was used by the bee-keeper.

Bee-keeping might seem like a trivial activity in the current economy and that is the reason you don’t hear so much about it. But make no mistake: if the bee hives disappear due to CDS, the varroa mite or usage of hi-tech herbicides, it is a problem on a world scale that can hardly be overrated. As I stated at the beginning of this article, bees are used for the fertilization of all kinds of crops, whether it is in green house agriculture or open field agriculture.

If crop yields become smaller due to insufficient fertilization this will not only lead to higher food and commodity prices, but to human starvation, international wars and other effects.

And to show the significance of the problem, here are some statistics. The investigation of the Dutch Center of Bee Research (NCB) and their sister institutions took place in four important bee-keeping countries: Netherlands, Poland, Belgium and Turkey

The numbers of bee hives in 4 investigated countries - figures courtesy of  NCB

Bee mortality in winter 2009-2010 in 4 investigated countries - figures courtesy of  NCB
You can see in the data that the bee mortality in these countries was (with an exception for Turkey) between 17% and 27% in winter and the dissappearance of bee hives (CDS) was between 6% and 13%. Those are very disturbing figures.

For The Netherlands the slow disappearance of the honey bee is an extremely challenging development.

The Netherlands only produces 1,4 mln tons of wheat, 11 mln tons of corn, 7 mln tons of potatoes, 4.5 mln tons of vegetables and several mln tons of fruit (figures according to CBS (Central Bureau of Statistics)). And almost all these crops need the honeybee for fertilization.

Unfortunately the causes for bee mortality, except for the varroa mite, are subject to further investigation and cause for heated discussions between a.o. university investigators, the herbicide industry and the bee-keeping society. There are no clear reasons yet that can explain the current extra mortality under bee hives that originated from the year 2000, but the finger is often pointed at the herbicide industry. Without rocksolid proof, however, those claims don't stand a chance.

But here is my warning: please beeware of this development.

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