Malta’s bees need protection
Bees are indispensable in nature and to mankind. Of the 100 crop species that supply 90 per cent of the world’s food, bees pollinate more than 70 per cent. But progress and urbanisation, a decline in flowering plants, use of harmful chemicals and insecticides, an increase in air pollution and a worldwide trade system that spreads bee pathogens and pests are contributing to the alarming global decline of bees.
In the Maltese Islands there was a very sharp drop in the bee population in 1992 (when around 80 per cent of all the colonies died) with the advent of a new parasitic mite of bees, Varroa destructor. Since then the bee population of the Maltese Islands has never been restored to its original level.
So what can we do to protect the bees and avoid a further decline or extinction of our bee population?
Authorities need to recognise the importance and fragility of this sector and provide more support to beekeepers. Being a vulnerable species in decline, bees need to be legally protected. The beekeeper faces many challenges to keep bees alive and needs more financial help and legal protection. Some of the common recurrent problems are pests and diseases, pesticide damage, theft, vandalism, neighbour complaints, unfavourable weather, lack of forage areas and high maintenance costs.
Beekeepers need to keep their bee colonies in good order by implementing good husbandry. Recently the Malta Beekeepers Association (MBA), in collaboration with a foreign accredited bee institute, conducted research on bee diseases. This study was fully financed through a specific EU programme for beekeeping jointly funded by the EU and the Ministry for Resources and Rural Affairs.
Nine samples of adult honey bees were collected from as many apiaries around Malta and Gozo. They were diagnosed for four different diseases: Nosema apis, Nosema ceranae, Acarapis woodii and Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus (CBPV).
All samples tested negative for Nosema apis and Acarapis woodii. However six samples tested positive for Nosema ceranae and three samples tested positive for CBPV.
CBPV is a relatively common bee virus which causes bee paralysis and can lead to colony death if neglected. It has been known to occur in the Maltese Islands and is unfortunately becoming more common.
However the confirmation of the presence of Nosema ceranae was a bitter surprise because before this study was carried out it was not known to occur locally. It is also suspected that this new bee disease did not surface very recently, since it was found in both Malta and Gozo.
Nosema is a parasite of adult honey bees which in adverse living conditions forms long living spores. The disease occurs throughout the world and causes reduced yields of honey and other bee products and poor yields in agriculture.
Bees afflicted by this disease start to forage earlier while pathological changes of their mid-gut epithelial cells, as well as digestive and metabolic disorders cause malnutrition, leading to a premature death.
Nosema shortens the life of bees and disrupts the natural population balance between newly hatched bees and old bees.
The affected honey bees tend to die of exhaustion away from the hive.
The EU prohibits the use of antibiotics in treating bee diseases because of potential development of resistance, disease masking, possible relapses, as well as harmful residues of antibiotics and their secondary metabolites in the bee products.
For that reason, the need arises for the development of natural phyto-pharmacological preparations in the treatment of Nosema and other diseases.
The MBA took immediate action so that now such natural medicaments are locally available. Their efficacy is comparable to that of antibiotics while being totally safe for both bees and humans.
The MBA will continue to monitor closely this disease and its effects on the local bee population .
A free informative presentation on the Nosema disease will be held at the Mġarr council hall on Wednesday at 7 p.m. All are invited. The presentation will be repeated in Gozo. Details will be given later on.
Mr Magri is the MBA’s scientific adviser. E-mail: [email protected].