The Quiet Disaster: European Bees in Trouble
It is not a fire or an earthquake. It makes no noise, and you can notice it only close-up. I live on a horse farm in Germany, surrounded by fields and orchards, the nearest village a kilometer away. After a dark, gloomy winter, apples, pears, and lilacs are in full bloom, and there are so many dandelions, the horses seem to be grazing on pastures of butter.
But there is an absence. We ride up to tree after tree, and peer closely at the blossoms. We cannot find a single bee. My German husband, a retired biology teacher, who has ridden horses here for 19 years, says, “Always before, there was a loud humming song.”
We ride close to an enormous old cherry tree, thirty feet tall, weighed down with white clusters of fragrant flowers. Our joy in this vision is mixed with a kind of horror. “We’re looking at a lovely catastrophe,” I tell my husband, and he nods, his eyes searching the branches.
We ride to the cache of beehives nestled in an overgrown corner of an apple field. We visited here all winter, imagining the bees warm inside – their movement brings the hive temperature to 35 degrees C. We dismount to investigate, and find that of the 20 hives, only three show activity. A small sign names the beekeepers. Back home, I find their website; there’s a tour in only two days.
Sunday dawns warm and sunny, with a few towering cumulus clouds. We’re early for the tour, and we walk into a well-tended apple orchard in full bloom, each pale pink blossom face open to the scented air. We search for bees. Nothing.
Guenter Kusterer, a compact man in his late 40s dressed in a loose pair of stained white pants meets the group of adults and kids gathered at the village fountain. Guenter says he and Sabine Chrystel started raising bees ten years ago. Their first bees nearly all got infested with a parasitic insect and died. At that point, the couple had to decide whether to give up. They decided to start over. There are only two species of bees in Europe, and lack of genetic diversity is a problem. Guenther and Sabine bred from both types, doubling their population each year, having to destroy about 15% each year due to parasites.
We hike to an apple orchard where we find Sabine, a pretty, slender woman in her 40s in dirty white pants like Guenter’s. We now realize that their pants are half of a beekeeper’s suit, as we all get outfitted in heavy white cotton topped by net hats. There are little suits for the kids, too.
Sabine pumps smoke from a hot metal can into a hive to quiet the bees before she opens it. She lifts racks covered with busy bees, and shows the fascinated children the Queen, who obligingly lays grain-of-rice white eggs as if showing off for us. The kids examine the wax homes for the grubs, most of them still closed over with an orangy-thick substance. Sabine’s love for the bees seems to infect the attentive children.
Sabine closes up the hive, gently brushing bees away from the edge of the lid with a long brush. Several children are kneeling on the grass with their noses almost touching the hive. I remember my own childhood love affairs with shiny black beetles, colonies of ants, and a toad I kept for a day in a jar and let go into a warm evening. A little girl at eye level with the edge of the hive warns Sabine, who is trying to fit the wooden lid on, “Oh, one might get crushed!”
Sabine says, “Sometimes, a bee does get crushed, accidentally,” and behind the protective netting, I see a look of loving concern cross the child’s face.
Guenther shows us holes he has bored in wood blocks to make homes for wild bees, and we see smaller, wiry-looking bees nesting there.
A discussion begins among the adults. It emerges that during their whole ten years of beekeeping, Guenter and Sabine have been warning about the problems bees are having: viruses, parasites, monocultures, changing climate, pesticides.
“And where are the bees this spring?” My husband asks. “Over this past winter,” Guenther says, “30% of all European bees died. 50% of British Isles bees died.” We absorb the bad news in shocked silence.
Guenther tells us that recent studies show that one class of pesticides, neo-nicotinoids, made by Bayer and Syngenta, are deadly to bees because it persists in pollen that the bees carry back to the hives. The hopeful news is that the European Union, in spite of expensive lobbying by the corporations, has banned neo-nicotinoids for two years to see if this will help the bees.
“But we’re not seeing any bees,” my husband persists.
“The weather this year is the reason,” Guenther explains. “First, it was so cold and dark, that the young bees have not yet emerged. Now, it’s unusually warm and everything is blooming, but the bees are still in the breeding combs. In a few weeks, they will be out, but these blossoms will be gone,” Guenther says, gesturing. “The bees will be all right. They will find clover and other plants.”
One father of two little boys asks, “What about the fruit trees for this year?” Guenther says simply, “Perhaps prices for fruit will rise.”
People ask: Are there other insects that can pollinate fruit and vegetable blossoms? No. Bees and flowers evolved together over 400 million years.
Can the wind pollinate some fruit? No. A bee must deliver the pollen deep into the flower. Wind pollinates only trees, grasses and grains.
On the drive home, we reminisce about last fall, when we gathered cloth bags of fallen apples and carried them home to give to the horses over the winter, our arms aching with the weight of our sacks.
A few days later, astonished, I read that the EPA has declined to ban neo-nicotinoids in the U.S. They say the pesticides need more study.