In Switzerland and around the world, honey bees are dying. Why do we care? Not just because we love honey. Countless fruits and other plants we depend upon can’t thrive without pollination by bees.
Two culprits are largely responsible for honey bee die-offs, say researchers and beekeepers.
One villain is the Varroa mite. This parasite sucks a bee’s vital juices and fats, infecting it with disease. Before worker bees put a bee larva into its honeycomb cell, the mite crawls in, too, explains beekeeper Francis Saucy, who husbands honey bee hives in Canton Fribourg. “After the cell is closed with beeswax, the mite attacks to reproduce”, he says. During the larva’s development, the young mites also develop, and “when the young bee emerges, the young mites attach to it and feed”. Such an infestation can wipe out most or all of a colony, says Saucy.
Francis Saucy, a biologist by training, says he spent his first paycheck after university on beehives. But beekeeping remains his “hobby”. His day job is as head of employment statistics for the Federal Office of Statistics in Neuchâtel.
Alas, these pesticides end up in the honey too, as bees buzz from pesticide-sprayed plant to plant, gathering tainted pollen and nectar, returning with it to the hive.
Only 13 percent of Swiss farms are certified organic, according to beekeeper Saucy. Which is why it’s so hard for bees to produce truly “organic” honey. “Organic honey isn’t impossible. It’s just beyond the ability of most beekeepers”, says an article in Science, which notes that honey bees visit about a million flowers to produce a standard jar of honey.
For a jar of Swiss honey to be labeled “organic”, only 50 percent of the land within 3 km of the hives is required to be pesticide-free. Much of what is labelled organic is therefore likely to be only partially so.
Contamination is compounded in the hive by accumulated pesticides in the wax that forms the honeycomb.
In Switzerland, as elsewhere, protecting bees against pesticides is simple – and complicated.
Hives need to be established in areas well away from farmland where pesticides are sprayed, says Saucy. In Switzerland, this mostly means in alpine meadows where the only “crops” are normally hay and wildflowers. But this very remoteness makes commercial beekeeping more expensive. “Switzerland has one of the highest density of hives and beekeepers in the world, but the lowest honey production”, partly because of a short summer season in the mountains, says Saucy. Another complication: even these remote beekeepers often buy beeswax for honeycomb starters, beeswax embedded with pesticide residue.
This need to keep hives beyond arm’s reach of farmlands where pesticides are used is why Saucy disputes the conclusions of a study by federal Swiss agriculture agency Agroscope, which recommends providing more bee habitats in the form of strips of flowers among fields of crops. These floral bands will attract more bees and help colonies thrive, says the report.
A pretty idea, but Saucy says this ignores the main problem. “These ‘flowered strips’ are ridiculously small as compared to areas usually foraged by honey bees,” says the beekeeper. “Bees will certainly visit these narrow strips of flowers, but since honey bees forage mostly on much larger crops, they will nevertheless be affected by pesticides in the neighbouring fields”.
What about fighting Varroa mite infestations? Science hasn’t yet developed a magic bullet, and pesticides are “the usual lazy answer”, says Saucy, because they “leave residue in wax and honey, and ultimately induce resistance in the mites”. Even organic acids proposed by the Agroscope Swiss Bee Research Centre can negatively affect queens, says Saucy.
That’s why, though he still uses organic acid on his own hives, Saucy dreams of getting rid of chemical treatments altogether. “In southeast Asia, where the Varroa originates, local bees have developed a hygienic behaviour which allows them to coexist with the parasite”, he says. “Breeding programs to select such tolerant bees in Europe are very promising”. He hopes to eventually develop such a project in Switzerland.
Meanwhile, Saucy, who has been stung well over the 1,000 times it supposedly takes to develop immunity, remains optimistic: “Bees will survive us”.
By Bill Harby