Pesticides, climate, parasites: beekeepers have the bumblebee

“It’s getting very complicated for our poor bee…” Gathered at a congress in Quimper, European beekeepers painted a gloomy panorama of their profession, faced with increasingly irregular harvests due to multiple environmental degradations.

“I fought for 30 years for the bee but, if I had to choose today, I don’t know if I would become a beekeeper”, says Henri Clément, beekeeper in the Cévennes and spokesperson for the National Union of French beekeeping (Unaf).

At 62, Mr. Clément, who owns 200 hives in Lozère, Hérault and Aude, is no longer far from retirement. “But it’s not pleasant for young people who want to settle down,” he laments.

The content of the debates held during the European congress in Quimper are proof of this: Asian hornet, varroa mites (a parasite), pesticides and climate change occupied a large part of the program.

“The biggest problem (with climate change) is the erratic weather,” said American entomologist Jeffery Pettis, president of Apimondia, an international federation bringing together beekeepers from 110 countries.

“Plants that were used to a certain temperature now face hot, dry summers and there are no more flowers,” he explains. “We also lose hives in floods or fires.”

Former researcher at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Mr. Pettis had shown in a study conducted in 2016 that the quality of the pollen of goldenrod, a perennial flowering plant, decreased with the increase in the level of CO2 in the air. ‘atmosphere.

“Our bees in North America depend on goldenrod” to get through the winter, he pointed out. “And this phenomenon can occur with other pollen sources, we don’t know,” added the scientist.

In the United States, as in France, 30 to 40% of hives die each winter, he reached, affected by varroa mites, pesticides and the reduction of wild spaces.

– pollinating drones –

“Today, there are even American startups that are developing drones to pollinate instead of bees. It’s completely absurd,” denounced Mr. Clément.

French beekeepers should harvest between 12,000 and 14,000 tonnes of honey this year, far from the more than 30,000 tonnes of the 1990s, according to Unaf. And Europe, the world’s second largest importer of honey, currently covers only 60% of its consumption.

During a debate on pesticides, Jean-Marc Bonmatin, researcher (CNRS) at the Orléans Molecular Biophysics Center, pointed out that the parasites and pathogens of bees, such as varroa mites or viruses, were “favoured by the presence of (pesticides) neonicotinoids which poison “in addition” directly “pollinators”.

Banned since 2018, neonicotinoids were reauthorized in February by the government for beet crops only. These substances can remain between 5 and 30 years in the soil, according to Mr. Bonmatin, who also warned against other classes of pesticides such as SDHI fungicides (succinate dehydrogenase inhibitors).

To enable farmers to protect bees, the researcher announces the forthcoming launch of free software called “Toxibee” which will make it possible to quickly identify the least toxic molecules.

“Before doing without pesticides, we can try to lessen the effect of pesticides,” he added. “Because what kills bees is one day or another harmful to human health.”

Faced with the gloomy observations of beekeepers, Mr. Pettis reiterated his confidence in the resistance of bees, citing the example of the black bee of Ile-de-Groix (Morbihan) “which survives varroa without treatment”.

“We think they depend on us but in reality, they survive very well without us,” boasted the beekeeping entomologist. “And there’s always the beauty of bees. It’s such a beautiful thing to work with bees!”

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