The Annihilation of the Bees "I'm worried! There are no bees!", says Todor Stoyanov. Photo: Ivan Milanov

The Annihilation of the Bees

Todor Stoyanov, 79, does not believe in ghosts. While people were speaking of bees mysteriously dying off, his hives were aways full. “All of this is rubbish, I don’t believe it”, he used to say at the time. But today things are different. It’s happened. The bees are gone.

“They don’t come back. It’s the first time this happened to me. I’ve been doing this for 50 years. It’s not varroa mite, it’s not due to spraying. Now I have neither honey, nor bees. Without obvious reason. They leave and never return.  I don’t know why… I did not believe it but it is true. There is something that kills them”, Stoyanov states as if in a trance.

Honey-making is a lucrative business and draws resources from the surrounding nature without damaging it. But in Bulgaria, the sector is now in decline. There are two main issues. The first is something right out of a ghost story: you hear rumours about it but only believe it after it grabs you by the throat and your bees are gone. The second problem is quite concrete, like visible of pricks a knife directly showing the negative human impact on the habitats of bees: pesticides.

Empty hives

Five to six bees come in, five to six come out – that’s it. Photo: Daniela Ivanova

The mysterious disappearance of the bees, the so-called colony collapse disorder, is a real phantom indeed. Thousands of beekeepers worldwide who have already fallen victim to the phenomenon openly complain, but everyone else thinks it is a hoax. Some scientific data have registered the problem; others do not. In 2013, trade unions in the USA, Europe and Bulgaria reported up to a 50% decline in the number of bee colonies. But official statistics do not always reflect such figures. For instance, Bulgaria’s Ministry of Agriculture and Foods reported an actual increase of registered beekeepers from 588,000 to 747,000 colonies, a growth of 15%.

Those convinced that bees are disappearing do not know the cause. Is it climate change, direct human activity, interaction with plants or something else?

This summer, Stoyanov was also hit with this growing phenomenon when his own bees disappeared. Where they went and for what reason remain unclear. His hives are located in the vicinity of Pobitite Kamani, between Beloslav and Devnya, an area rich in acacia trees, known for the honey bees make from its blooms. “I have nearly 70 hives. In past years, as the acacia blossomed during May and June, there were bees. Plenty of them. I fed them, the hive developed. I have had varroa mites, too; it can be seen on the brood. I have fought them. The bees have also died because of spraying. It can be told, when pesticides have been sprayed, dead bees can be found in front of the hive, dead swarms under the trees, in the gardens. Whatever has happened, the bees regenerated. When I would take the frames away for extracting the honey, the storage section would be crammed, and the swarm would buzz like a jet. No such thing now. This is the first time it has happened to me. The bees disappeared; there is not a gram of honey. I’ve been keeping bees for half a century, it’s never been like that. I Got scared! Five to six bees come in, five to six come out – that’s it. It is not due to the chimneys of Devnya. My word – for 50 years I have been keeping bees, even when all the Devnya plants operated and billowed fumes, the bees were in abundance. Now I even hunt bird bee-eaters (Merops apiaster), whatnot… If it was so only with me, but it isn’t. The neighbours, too, are at a loss, and do not know why it is so”, says the elderly Stoyanov.

Precisely 10 to 15 years ago the usage of mobile operators’ antennae exploded. Perhaps they interfered with the melliferous insects’ orientation.

Like every proprietor, the beekeeper takes a keen interest in his livelihood. He follows specialised publications, watches TV, listens for what the scientists may be saying. But nobody is saying anything. At least nothing concrete. There are multiple versions of why bees are dying without a single consensus, making it all just a jumble of noise. Solar spots, GMO plants, immunity alterations in the bees themselves, chemicals, soil or air contaminants, temperature anomalies, GSM cells. The source of the problem appears to merely be a subject of futile research by the entire scientific community. “The cause of the high death rate of the bees remains unclear. There is no conclusive research”, said MEP Maria Gabriel at an international conference on apiculture in Brussels in June.

If the European Parliament does not know, is Stoyanov expected to know? He personally suspects the mobile operators’ antennae, because in Bulgaria the usage of these devices exploded precisely 10 to 15 years ago. Perhaps they interfere with the melliferous insects’ orientation? Alas, nobody really knows.

“Let the scientist say. Ours, foreign ones, whoever. But they have to discover the cause. It is most probably some human activity”, declares Stoyanov. “Yes, the bees do disappear, but it is not proven why. What to do? Such is the situation”, sums up Svetoslav Mateev, owner of 2,200 beehives near Gabrovo.

Unpunished murders

Yordan Yordanov from Shabla once again finds dead bees. This happens to be a common problem for many beekeepers. Photo: Velina Barova / species.bluelink.net

And now we come to the second problem: pesticide spraying. This practice simply results in the murder of bees in broad daylight. In Bulgaria, there is indiscriminate spraying, and this is the biggest trouble for the beekeepers. Spraying literally sickens the bees’ habitats and unfavourably tips the balance in their ecosystem. And this past spring, the problem worsened.

The recent wave of deaths came with the arrival of the cow disease, nodular dermatitis. The skin disease affecting bovine animals was brought from Greece in April, and in May shock-spraying got underway since mosquitoes carry the disease. The spraying was carried out by units of the Ministry of Agriculture via aircraft, which was disastrous for the masses of bees who fly around actively between May and June every year. The chemicals are lethal to bees, and thousands of colonies were annihilated, especially in Southern Bulgaria. This killing even led to protests in Dimitrobgrad and Petrich and there was a major act of civil disobedience in Gotze Delchev when beekeepers from the area gathered on an airfield to prevent the ministry’s pilot from taking off.

No one can calculate the damage exactly. I’ve probably lost 200 beehives.

“No one can calculate the damage exactly. I’ve probably lost 200 beehives. The circle is a vicious one; the hours specified for spraying and for us to respectively confine the bees are not observed. They are violated en masse; everyone can corroborate it. But the government officially says that they are observed. And that it is our fault”, Dimitar Georgiev, a beekeeper from the region of Gotze Delchev, informed us.

And the problems are not only in Southern Bulgaria. “There are those who rent the land for agricultural use who do not notify us at all. They poisoned 160 colonies of ours in April”, reports Mateev. Yordan Yordanov from Shabla, who is a vet and keeps around 200 colonies, is also complaining: “The pesticides bring the big death. I’ve counted 500 to 600 dead bees in front of the hive. The pesticide trade is uncontrollable; it is a big business. The small holder goes to the agricultural drug store, buys whatever he likes, sprays whatever comes handy, without control. The hours are not observed, and in such cases, in the heat of summer, the beekeeper cannot close the hive for a full day. The state is nowhere to be found. Spraying against mosquitoes and caring about tourists is more important for the state than the bees. Additionally, beekeepers’ associations are as many as 12 or so. There isn’t a united one to defend our interests.”

Government representatives, on their part, have repeatedly denied the allegations. In their opinion, spraying is conducted in a manner that does not harm the bees. “It takes place according to the legal requirements. The mayors and beekeepers’ guilds get notified five days before the treatments”, the Bulgarian Food Safety Agency officially declared at the height of the beekeeper protests over the summer. “For the maximum protection of the bees, treatments with insecticides are carried out only during the early hours of the day from 6:00 AM to 10:00 AM”, clarified the institution. “The aircraft spray only in the morning, although evening sprayings are also permitted under the law. Territories that are a habitat of the mosquitoes are sprayed over, not places where the bees gather nectar and pollen”, stated Georgy Chobanov, head of the Animal Health and Welfare, and Feed Control Directorate, in June.

Obviously, the stories of the disputing parties differ. As to the colony collapse disorder, the state has no position at all, particularly since, according to its data, the number of bees is not even declining. On the contrary, according to its data, bee colonies are increasing. However, the official statistics about both existing and lost colonies comprise only registered beekeepers. Only these producers are counted. But many beekeepers do not register, most often because it brings no benefits to them. Stoyanov, for instance, is not registered. At the end of the day, official statistics are simply incomplete.

The problem of bees dying off, especially due to pesticide spraying, is so acute that the Confederation of Bulgarian beekeepers has spread poll cards on the internet to gather data about the matter. What the official death rate will be is still unknown. For the past year, before the nodular dermatitis epidemic, it stood at 45,000 colonies.

There is also another problem for ascertaining the real death rate of bees following spraying: “The procedure is heavy, slow and expensive. Many people complain but few set out to prove the deaths occurred. A complaint is filed at the municipal agricultural office, a committee is formed. The dead bees are counted. Two types of samples have to be submitted – both from the dead bees and from the sprayed plants. However, there is no state laboratory for such analysis in Bulgaria. There is a private one, and the bees sample costs 400 leva (€205) and another 400 leva for the plant. If poisoning is at all proven, the sprayer gets a penalty, but the afflicted beekeeper receives nothing. Do you understand now why few people embark on proving the extermination to seek their rights”, Svetoslav Mateev tells us. It proves that the scheme in which the beekeepers are currently caught is indeed vicious and… deadly.

Expensive and decreasingly lucrative

Given the ongoing issues, income generation for beekeepers has obviously been in decline as well. Stoyanov is a small holder. He does not practice seasonal beekeeping and invests little, and yet he is losing. “I used to extract 20-30 kg of honey per year. But now there is none at all. My expenses are not covered. I live in Varna. Every other day, I travel to the apiary, which is 50 km away, and I have to pay for fuel. We pay for medication; last year we bought a fumigator as well, which cost 150 leva (€77). I haven’t done a precise calculation. You can estimate it yourselves. And obviously the problem is serious, because the retail price of honey dew went up one leva. A jar used to trade for 8 leva (€4). Now it is 9 leva (€4.60). If there are no problems, as the Ministry states, why does the price rise?” he asks.

Dimitar Georgiev’s revenue is also dropping. He is from Gotze Delchev and is a much larger producer: “I calculated up to now, August, that my profit is 2000 leva (€1023) less. I have produced a third less honey compared to last year. Well, spraying is behind this.” The quality of the honey is also affected by the pesticides. “They spray, and then there is antibiotic in the honey, but you can only export pure honey”, says another beekeeper, Dimitar Tzonev, from Kavarna.

The pollination factor has to be taken into account. It is a major contributor to Europe’s gross domestic product.

And yet, the benefit from bees is far greater than just jars of honey. Aside from the importance of honey production for the export market, the pollination of plants, provided by bees’ activity, is a vital part of every ecosystem and of incomparably higher significance for the economy itself. Pollination is directly tied to successful agriculture and greater yield, or far less when problems occur. However, it seems that a vital player is continuously absent in the dialogue between the beekeepers and the state– the scientific community. And large-scale Bulgarian research on the general decrease of bees, the specific impact of pesticides and resulting economic losses are simply not available.

“There is no apiculture education in this country. There are two or so people, who hold a scientific title on this subject”, Petko Simeonov, chair of the association for biological beekeeping, explains. And nevertheless, there are expert opinions on the matter by the non-governmental sector. “The death rate of bee colonies in recent years is high. There are also problems with wholesale prices of honey”, states a report studying the degradation and fragmentation of Black Sea ecosystems on tourism and recreational activities. The report was produced by a team of scientists and experts from Bulgaria, Norway and Germany. Since last year a downturn in the prices worldwide can be observed”, agrees Simeonov. He explains: “Our honey is export-oriented, mainly for Europe. Now conventional honey is bought up for 4.50 leva (€2.30), the biological for 6-6.50 leva (€3.10-3.30). The European policy includes aiding biological farming, but Bulgaria is a disadvantaged state, because targeted funding is little”.

Actually beekeeping should also be aided because of its effect on the yield of plants. And it is huge. Research from 2009 shows that the contribution by bees to agricultural yield through pollination is 80-100% for apple trees, 0-10% for vines, 80-100% for melons, 50-90% for cucumbers, 10-50% for tomatoes, and 50-100% for rape and sunflowers. Estimates for various areas occupied by crops in the Black Sea region show a contribution of at least 40 million leva (€20 million) from the direct service of bees. Another study from 2005 calculates that pollination by the bees forms on average 9.5% of the final value of agricultural produce in the world. This percentage, applied only to the Bulgarian Black Sea region, translates into a service provided by the bees equal to approximately 10 million leva (€5 million) annually”, the study of Black Sea ecosystems states. “The pollination factor has to be taken into account. It is a major one for Europe’s gross domestic product”, adds Simeonov.

It is clear, the mystery of the disappearing bees, and the cause behind the phenomenon, needs to be solved… soon.

The text was originally published in Bulgarian in October 15, 2016 in Evromegdan.bg. Translation: Satyam Atanassov / Group for Active Translations – GAP

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