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To bee or not to bee

At the beginning of last month, the EU directorate for health and consumers issued a communication on the welfare of the honey bee to the European Parliament and Council.

Beekeeping is a popular countryside activity throughout Europe. It goes without saying that healthy bees are likely to produce more and better-quality honey. Bees are also valued for other products, including propolis, royal jelly and wax, used in cosmetics and candle-making. Most of all they are important for their pollination of fruit and vegetable crops.

Since 2003 there have been reports in Europe and the US of serious losses of bees from beehives. This has caused concern around the world, as over 80 per cent of wild flowers and 84 per cent of crops depend on insect pollination to reproduce.

The sudden dispersal and death of almost an entire hive full of bees is known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). An active and productive hive is suddenly found to be empty except for the abandoned queen and a few loyal workers. A bee without a colony is a dead bee.

One theory suggests that the bees go crazy and fly off in all directions because their complex navigational system, which allows them to forage widely, is somehow damaged.

Scientists have not yet been able to determine the leading cause or full extent of increased bee mortality. It appears that there is no single factor, while bees may be perishing for a variety of reasons.

Mites, fungus and virus infections, especially when all three are present together, have been blamed for the collapse of bee colonies. Global and regional trade of bees between countries is a major cause of global contaminations.

Pesticides and genetically modified organisms have also appeared on a list of possible suspects although the commission is not convinced. Bee deaths did not increase in areas where GMOs were planted when compared with other areas. Pesticides with an unacceptable effect on bee health are not supposed to be used in Europe.

Poor nutrition may also play a part, as bees must have pollen from different plants just as we need a varied range of foods in our own diet. Disappearance of wild flowers and increase of monoculture may be partly behind why the bees become weak and less able to resist disease.

Other influences may be the disruption of pollination timing due to climate change; the spread of invasive insect species and invasive plants drawing native pollinators away from native plants.

So far, scientists do not fully agree on what exactly is causing high bee mortality rates and more research needs to be done.

The World Organisation for Animal Health is considering bees as a priority in its strategic plan for 2011-2015. Director general Bernhard Vallat is keenly aware of the contribution bees make to global food security and points out that their extinction would be “a terrible biological disaster”.

The health of a bee colony depends on the health of individual bees and the other way around. If something disturbs the complex interactions in the colony, bees may slow down and produce less, diseases can appear and the whole colony can die off.

Bees are very sensitive to negative developments in their surroundings (disease, less food, bad weather, harmful materials, etc.).

Some observers wonder whether the collapse of bee colonies could be part of a larger pattern as targets to reduce the loss of biodiversity fail to be met.

The high mortality rate of bees could be part of a more general decline of some other pollinators, such as butterflies and hoverflies which also visit flowers. It is thought that these vital pollinators may be disappearing because their habitats have shrunk or succumbed to adverse environmental effects of pesticide use.

Working out a common strategy to protect bees across Europe seems the best approach. The health and consumer commission has made a start with studies on the causes and effects of colony collapses and a European bee lab is to be set up. The commission has increased funds for the replacement of lost colonies.

The commission is also looking into ways to stimulate the development of new bee medicines or to make existing ones available and affordable. Veterinarians are being trained to collect, analyse and distribute information on bee health.

Support from the EU is in place to enhance Malta’s bee population with programmes against illnesses and re-stocking of hives, to be done with great care so as to avoid infection.

Over the coming three years, Malta will be putting around €14,000 annually into protection of bees, half of which is covered by EU funding.

Local bee enthusiast Alexei Pace has called for the endemic Maltese honey bee to be protected and studied further. “Local councils should take a leading role by setting up bee-friendly gardens where nectar-producing flowering plants are available,” he advised in an article which appeared in the press some months back. Contacted last week for further comment, he added:

“The protection of the local endemic honeybee should be pursued by the government by furthering its native queen-bee production programme.” He explained that the provision of bee-friendly gardens is a separate and distinct means of promoting the abundance of insect pollinators.

What would be the consequences if bees disappeared and were possibly replaced by other pollinators such as other insects, certain birds… or even bats? A study on the impact of this change is currently underway.

A strategic European research project called the Bee Shop (Bees in Europe and Sustainable Honey Production) has produced a manual for bee-keepers.

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