Story by Alexa LaVersa ·
THESSALONIKI, Greece – Bees swarm around Evropi-Sofia Dalampira as she walks along Anel Honey Park’s on-site honeybee colonies next to beekeeper Kostas Boudouths, who is checking his hives. She was leading a tour group of kindergarteners through the park, showing the kids how bees gather nectar and pollinate plants.
This kind of work – evangelizing bee farming and ticking off fun bee facts to visitors – is one part of what Dalampira, an environmental scientist and director of the park, does. The rest of her time, though, is spent advocating for measures that would prevent hundreds of thousands of bees across Greece from dying due to pesticide use – a crisis that cuts into the honey industry, which is a mainstay to Greek food, as well as affects the flower, fruit and vegetable yield in the country.
“Without bees there are no plants, and without plants there is no life,” said Dalampira, who holds a degree in the conservation of biodiversity and sustainable exploitation of native plants. But that’s going to have to change or the effects, she said, will be devastating.
In Greece, the bee population has fluctuated over the last few years for a number of reasons, including the use of insecticides called neonicotinoids used to ward off bugs from plants and trees. When bees pollinate, they absorb the poison, and it makes them sick. Scientists tracking the issue say as many as 50 percent of bees that come in contact with these chemicals will die within eight months.
The result is that honeybees are dying, which means their honey production per colony is diminishing. Wasps and bumblebees – which don’t produce honey, but are vital to the process of pollination – are dying as well.
“Honeybees are the bees that a beekeeper wants to keep,” said Dalampira. But “all the other bees – bumblebees and wasps, both of which help with pollination – are the types of bees that are in danger of extinction.”
Honey is one of the staples in the Greek diet. It’s also an important export because of its high quality in flavors and color. Between ancient traditions of farming honeybees traced back to before Aristotle, and the more than 24,500 beekeepers around the country, bees are an important part of Greek culture. These factors, along with the environmental benefits bee species provide to ecology, mean that the struggling bee population in Greece needs to be addressed.
“Honey production in Greece is something really serious. There’s a huge tradition of that, thought to be from ancient times,” said Anestis Anastasiou, a professor of hospitality and tourism at the American College of Thessaloniki. Honey production is a $113 million industry in Greece, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, or FAO. “Greeks are eating honey all the time: on bread, in yogurts or cereals,” said Anastasiou. “We have in our cuisine a lot of Greek sweets that are made using honey rather than sugar.”
There is good news, though. Due to the economic crisis and widespread loss of jobs across the country over the last decade, a growing number of people have decided to become bee farmers, said Fani Hatjina, a researcher in the Apiculture Division at the Institute of Animal Science, Hellenic Agricultural Organization in Nea Moudania, Greece. And that has offset the overall rate of bee losses here.
In 2009, there were 15,190 farmers registered to keep bees, according to the Federation of Greek Beekeepers’ Associations, or OMSE. By 2014, that number had risen to 24,582 beekeepers nationally – nearly a 62 percent increase.
And because of that increase – despite the continued loss of hives Greece has been suffering – honey production has stayed constant.
The numbers tell the story: Greece produced about 36 million pounds of honey in 2011, according to the FAO. That dropped by just 4 percent by 2013 to 34.6 million pounds. But in that same time, the number of colonies increased by 29,275 hives to 1.4 million.
Katerina Karatasou, a veterinarian at OMSE, acknowledges that with nearly 30,000 more hives in Greece, honey production shouldn’t have just held level – it should have jumped. This is worrying for two reasons: Bees continue to die in some regions, such as where fruit orchards grow because of the heavy pesticide use there, according to OMSE. And at the same time, other regions are in danger of being saturated with too many hives because of the thousands of new farmers.
“This cannot go on forever. For every region there is a threshold. More colonies [in an area] means less food for each colony,” she said. Honey production is influenced by the strength of the colony based on health and environmental factors such as bad weather, which can lessen levels of what bees eat, nectar and honeydew.
The bee problem is not Greece’s alone. In countries where pesticide use is prevalent, the loss is staggering. According to the Centre for Research in Globalization, based in Montreal, Canada, 30 percent of bees in the U.S., which has widespread pesticide use, have died in the last five years, for example. That translates to a full one-third of all colonies, gone.
Conversely, in Italy in 2008, colony losses ranged from 25 percent to 38 percent, but after banning four pesticides – three of which are neonicotinoids – the rate was down to 11.6 percent in 2013, according to a nationwide bee-monitoring network called ApeNet.
In other European countries and Australia, laws in place banning certain insecticide use have saved the bee populations from being decimated.
“Colonies collapsing is due to a mixture of reasons,” said Hatjina, explaining the various elements at play that could kill bees. “We can see in research that in the different areas [of Greece], the pesticides are different, and the time of year that [colony losses are] happening is different. In areas that have high losses, it is probably due to diseases or to bad nutrition,” she said.
While pesticides affect the chemical composition within the colony, they also weaken a colony’s resiliency against other environmental factors, such as weather and naturally occurring diseases bees’ immune systems would normally fight off.
“In the treatment of diseases, it’s shown that using a biological treatment, the beekeepers have less losses,” said Hatjina, comparing losses to colonies using veterinary medicines, which instead contain synthetic chemicals. The problem with those is scientists worry they could increase resistance to the treatment, affect the bees’ genetic material – which could in turn have an impact on people who eat honey – and hurt the colonies’ ability to produce queen bees, said Hatjina.
There needs to be reform, she urged, if there is any hope to staunch the losses while protecting the health of bees and the people who consume their honey.
“One of the things the government could do is decide to ban the most dangerous chemicals, which are the neonicotinoids,” said Hatjina, whose research is often centered on the effects of these pesticides. “Unfortunately, almost four years ago, the Greek government [abstained] from voting about neonicotinoids. There is another vote happening later this summer, and we hope our efforts to press the government to vote against it will work,” she said.
Dalampira said there is progress in other European countries on that front.
“The European Union in general has been trying to change the system over the last decade. Not only to ban some pesticides, which they already have done, but also to reduce the number of monocultures in an area,” said Dalampira.
Monoculture agricultural practices create fields with only one type of plant. Polyculture practices are preferable, especially using plants that flower at different times of the year, thereby providing the bees with food throughout every season.
“We must be sensitive of the environment,” said Dalampira. “If we don’t, we will not have all these products or animals if we don’t have nature to cultivate from.”