Lebanon: Bee Epidemic

Could human greed be behind the demise of bee populations across the world? IMAGE COURTESY GREENPEACE

By MOSTAPHA RAAD

Climate change has shifted the ecology of land and sea. It has affected both fauna and flora, and has harmed hundreds, if not thousands, of living species, including the main insect responsible for our planet’s food security: The bee.

But is it really just climate change that is killing our planet and its delicate organisms?

In Lebanon, the future of beekeeping looks bleak. A study issued last May by the faculty of Agriculture at the American University of Beirut, found that in a year’s span, “various bee colonies across Lebanon witnessed a bizarre phenomenon, which is the death of adult bees in large numbers.”

Meanwhile, in the United States, studies conducted by the U.S. Department of  State for Agriculture (USDA) showed that some 23 percent of various bee species died due to low temperatures between 2014 and 2015, compared to the average rate of 18 percent. The USDA findings have also shown that nearly 43 percent of bees died between 2013 and 2014.

A Bizarre Phenomenon

Beekeepers across the world have long noticed a sudden and fast drop in the number of bee species—a phenomenon that can only be seen as a bad omen.

The importance of bees was adequately described in the 2007 animated movie “Bee Movie,” in which we are placed face to face with the catastrophic consequences when the bees go on strike and stop producing the elixir of life: honey. The movie was hilarious, but the facts in the real world are anything but.

In addition to producing honey, bees are also considered one of the vital engines in the food production process worldwide.

They are essential in pollinating crops, alongside other insects such as butterflies, wasps and flies. The importance of pollination is better appreciated when one considers the fact that over one-third of the foods we eat, such as fruits, vegetables, herbs, nuts, or oils are essentially pollinated by bees.

According to Greenpeace, 90 percent of the international nutrition base rests upon bees, whose mission is to pollinate 70 food-related items, out of the essential 100 consumed by humans.

Winter Death

According to the Lebanese Ministry of Agriculture, the average mortality rate of adult bees, in any colony, ranges between 7 percent to 10 percent in wintertime.

“We should take into consideration the difference between a professional beekeeper and an amateur one,” when referring to such rates, says agricultural engineer Ramzi Moghrabi, the head of the minisry’s beekeeping department.

Moghrabi tells Newsweek Middle East that a larger number of bees tend to die during winter when being kept by an amateur.

The ministry regularly follows up with Lebanon’s 6,000 registered beekeepers (both professional and amateur), and who manage some 309,716 beehives.

However, agricultural engineer Ali Yassin, a specialist on bees, says “there are no accurate figures related to the death of bees in Lebanon.”

“Estimates indicate that the bees are dying in larger quantities compared to the normal annual death rate in wintertime,” says  Yassin, who is also a representative of the Jebel Amel Beekeepers’ Cooperative Association.

“The percentage of bees’ mortality within my work district, which covers 50 towns and villages in South Lebanon, is around 30 percent, but that [number] is relative from one town to another,” he adds.

Three years ago, a number of beekeepers in the Western Bekaa region reported mass deaths among their bees to the Ministry of Agriculture.

After investigating the matter, the ministry noticed that “the larger number of beekeepers reporting higher mortality rates among their bees were amateur beekeepers. They did not know how to run their beehives or take care of them during winter,” Moghrabi explains.

The reason, according to Moghrabi, was that most amateur beekeepers had already harvested most of the honey, depriving their bees of their winter supply. Moreover, the beekeepers had not expected a second cold wave to hit their region, and which killed most of their bees. The large number of deaths was therefore caused by human mismanagement rather than a colony collapse disorder (CCD), a mysterious disease sweeping through Europe’s bee colonies.

A World Without Bees

In 2011, Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Food Program, said human beings imagined that by the 21st century they would have possessed a far more advanced technology, which would make them self-sufficient and independent from mother nature.

But bees are a constant reminder to the contrary, he said.

The mass death of bees has dire consequences on global food security, since most crops rely on the natural pollination process necessary for the growth of fruits and vegetables.

Perhaps the next 10 years pose the highest risk to our food-security chain. The excessive use of pesticides may lead to the disappearance of vegetables and fruits in markets everywhere and may even put us on the verge of an international famine.

The possible extinction of bees is not a laughing matter in other developing countries. During pollination season in China’s southwestern Sichuan province, known as the pear capital of the world, local farmers need to fertilize hundreds of thousands of pear and apple trees by hand after the excessive use of insecticides killed all the bees in that area around 1980.

The Chinese primarily sprayed pesticides in excessive quantities to fight the psylla insects, also known as the pear lice, but it backfired and led to the extinction of bees in Sichuan.

Since then, farmers hand-pollinate the trees using sticks made of chicken feathers and plastic bottles. But imagine this: One person can pollinate between 5 to 10 trees a day, but a single colony of bees can pollinate up to 300 million flowers a day.

If Bees Become Extinct
But what does all of this mean for planet Earth?

According to Yassin, “The disappearance of bees will destabilize the environmental balance: No bees means no pollination, means no seeds or flowers, meaning no flora, no vegetables, no fruits, no animals, and consequently an unavoidable famine.”

There are 240 species of bees, of which the honeybee is one. Although bees are not the sole pollinators, they continue to be the lead insects to carry that vital mission.

Killer Factors

High Temperatures
Yassin refers the heat wave that struck Lebanon in the summer of 2015 as an example of their decline, saying it had “a deadly impact on Lebanon’s flora, which was subject to drought, depriving bees from the chance to get nectar sap from flowers.

“It also deprived the bees from collecting pollen, which caused a trauma across the bees’ kingdom. No pollen means the queen bee stops producing eggs,” he adds.

Queen bees usually start cutting back on producing eggs from mid-July till the end of August, when the temperature is at its highest causing the drought, he says. Queen bees and bees, in general, resume activity in September, when autumn flowers compensate for the dry season.

Lebanon, known for its mild Mediterranean weather, faced one of its cruelest summers last year, with temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius throughout July, August and September.

“High temperatures delayed the growth of the False Yellowhead, also known as the Aromatic Inula, a flowery herb which grows during autumn, among other flowers. As adult bees were unable to produce a new generation of honeybees, most colonies collapsed,” Yassin explains.

According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, under the National Oceanic and Administrative Association (NOAA), December 2015, was the hottest month in 136 years, with a rise of 1.1 degrees Celsius compared to other months. NOAA said that in 2015 it recorded an “anomaly” in temperature rising by a 0.9 degrees Celsius on land worldwide, compared to a 0.74 degrees increase in 2014.

The rising temperatures mean the queen bees will stop ovulating, which also means new generations of bees will never see the light.

Bacterial Infection

According to the Lebanese Ministry of Agriculture, higher temperatures also helped spread a number of diseases which infect bees. One of the deadliest and most widespread bee brood diseases is the Amercian foulbrood, caused by Bacillus larvae, which kills larvae by destroying their eyesight.

Drought is usually accompanied by food scarcity, forcing the infected bee colonies to attack other colonies for nectar, and by that, infect other bees.

Moghrabi recommends that beekeepers start implementing a ministry decision to eliminate the infected colony by burning the hive after they have killed the bees with gasoline.
But some beekeepers continue to disregard the new regulation, arguing that burning the hive would “only make the situation worse as the disease continues to spread then,” he says.

Varroa Destructor

The Varroa is an external parasitic mite that attacks two species of honeybees: Apis cerena and Apis millifera. The disease caused by mites is called varrosis. The mites, seen with the naked eye, multiply in infected colonies. In such cases the ministry distributes Apivar, a treatement that kills the mite.

Christine Gebeneter, the European Union communications coordinator for the Ecological Farming Project at Greenpeace, tells Newsweek Middle East that beekeepers “agree the Varroa destructor constitutes a dangerous threat to farming honeybees worldwide.”

Yet Gebaneter says that scientists have found more parasites such as Nosema Ceranae, which may have a far more dangerous impact on the various honeybee species in southern Europe and elsewhere.

Insecticides, a Crime Against Nature!

The continued use of insecticides poses a huge threat to honeybees, causing them to become susceptible to infections and more vulnerable.
Gebeneter says that there are seven types of insecticides listed by Greenpeace as the most harmful. These include: imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, clothianidin, fipronil, chlorpyriphos, cypermethrin and deltamethrin.
According to studies by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), poison which had infiltrated the pollen has had a direct impact on the number of honeybees, which dropped from 6 million in 1947 to only 2.5 million in 2015.

Crossing Breeds
There are several species of bees in the Middle East including the Cyprus bee, the Syrian bee (found in Lebanon and Syria) and the Palestinian and Egyptian honeybees.

Unfortunately, Lebanese officials told Newsweek Middle East that some beekeepers in Lebanon have been importing already-fertilized queen bees from Italy and Argentina, among other countries. They disregard the fact that the flora in Lebanon differs from that in their countries of origin. The bees also possess different characteristics and behaviors than the Syrian honeybee.

The Syrian queen honeybee is now rare to find, and bees that are cross-bred cannot survive in lower temperatures, says Yassin.

Lebanon’s Flora

Despite Lebanon’s relatively small area (10,452 km2) compared to Europe (10.18 million km2), yet the Mediterranean country enjoys a highly unique flora. Lebanon has 512 flower species, used to produce honey, compared to 762 across all of Europe.

Such rich flora allows the production of alpha honey, which is a mix of hundreds of flowers found in a small geographical terrain, unlike Europe’s mono-floral honey.

However Lebanon’s environmental treasure is under threat due to negligence. In 2013, the ministry said the “arbitrary abuse of the rural wealth in Lebanon over the past decades have caused the country’s green pastors to disappear to just 13 percent of the country’s overall area.”

The disappearance in green spaces is not only caused by extensive construction, but also by the increased wild fires across the country.

In 2008 alone, the ministry said Lebanon lost 6,717 acres of green spaces to fires in just four years.

What to Do?

Greenpeace has worked closely and intensively over the past three years in an attempt to eliminate the damage inflicted by industrial farming on bio-ecological farming, where no chemical insecticides are used.

Gebaneter calls for the protection of the ecological system by: banning the use of insecticides that harm bees and other pollinators; finding alternatives to pesticides used on crops; varying crops to help bees diversify their honey sources; the implementation of a risk-assessment system to eliminate the use of insecticides; and the continued monitoring of the bees’ health and allocating sufficient funds to encourage ecological farming.

“As beekeepers, we cannot find more green pastors to place our beehives and colonies in. This is mainly due to mega construction works that are eating up the country’s green patches,” laments Yassin.

“The government must issue a decree turning green pastors into government-protected sanctuaries,” he advises.

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