Honeybees, or Apis mellifera, which are native to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, have been domesticated around the world, but since the 1980s their mortality has increased rapidly in most temperate regions (Europe, Japan, North and South America). The naturalist Jean-Pierre Rogel writes, of Canada: “The current losses of around 25% are exceptional, and would be disastrous economically if they continued in the medium term.” Bernard Tiron, who has been keeping bees in the Valgaudemar valley in France’s Hautes-Alpes region for 35 years, says: “When I started out, I was losing 5 percent over the winter. Now it’s 30 percent. The way things are today, I wouldn’t go into beekeeping again. There are no more flowers in the pastures: Farmers mow before the flowers bloom so they can get two hay harvests, which means more green stuff to feed their cows, and maximize their milk yield. Hedges are vanishing too.”
Tiron says there’s something wrong in the fields where the bees collect nectar: “The varieties of oilseed rape and sunflower they grow today give less nectar. Lavender used to flower for three to four weeks. Now it’s just one. They used to start harvesting earlier, and didn’t bring in the whole crop at once. It was cut by hand with sickles and the bees had time to collect nectar and fly on ahead of the pickers. Now they have machines that suck up the flowers, and the bees along with them.” Something is wrong with the bees, too. “Colonies are smaller and the queens don’t live as long. I used to have hives that produced with the same queen for three or four years in a row. Now they live two years at most.”
There are many reasons for this decline, but all are related to the growing pressure put on ecosystems for commercial gain. One is the parasitic varroa mite, which has infested most colonies. It reproduces inside sealed brood cells, feeding on the haemolymph (“blood”) of the immature bees. The mites originated in Asia and were transmitted to European honeybees when they were introduced to East Asia in the 1950s, spreading rapidly along global trade routes. In recent years, another predator, the Asian hornet, has arrived in Europe by these same routes and is giving beekeepers problems.
Another problem is pesticides. The long struggle for recognition of the carcinogenic properties of tobacco shows how heavy the burden of proof can be, including on scientists, when a product is marketed on a huge scale by multinational companies. But research is revealing the impact of neonicotinoid pesticides. One recent study suggests that they triple mortality among wild bees; another links colony failure among honeybees to low sperm viability.
The number of hives has fallen by half in the United States and by a third in Europe since the 1960s, and—though hive numbers have stabilized at around 17 million in Europe and 2.6 million in the United States in the last decade—the number of beekeepers is still falling. Commercial operations today have more hives and higher expenses and must work harder. Reproduction has become a greater concern than honey production, with many beekeepers forced to buy colonies from specialist breeders. Italy has become a major supplier of bees in Europe; New Zealand exports them to Canada (35 tonnes in 2015). Beekeepers must also breed queens, or buy them from professional breeders, to replace queens in unproductive hives and speed up colony production.