Slovenia calls for UN action to save the bees

24.11.2016 10:45:11
Svetovni dan čebel

Bees are a critical component of a healthy ecology. Their health and presence are essential for food production and healthy agricultural economies. But bee populations are in decline for a variety of reasons, some known, others unclear. The impact is global.

This is why we convened a panel of experts discussed the role of bees in food security, sustainability, and biodiversity for a program — “World Bee Day: To Bee or Not To Bee” — at the European Union Delegation in Washington, D.C. The program, co-hosted by the Embassy of Slovenia, highlighted many causes of bee population decline, why it matters, and the Republic of Slovenia’s proposal to the United Nations to proclaim May 20 as World Bee Day (more here). Scientists, federal, state and DC agencies, environmental and regulatory businesses, press, bee organizations, young professionals and interested members of the general public were in attendance.

Deputy EU Ambassador to the US Caroline Vicini spoke of the loss of bees as a threat to commercial agriculture, the EU’s engagement on the issue, and her own concern as an avid gardener. Slovenia’s Ambassador to the US Dr. Božo Cerar underscored the importance of raising public awareness of our global dependency on bees for one out of every three bites of our food. Slovenia’s World Bee Day initiative will go before the UN General Assembly in the fall of 2017, with the first World Bee Day anticipated on May 20, 2018.

Agnieszka Jarmula, Senior Advisor on food safety, health and consumer affairs at the EU Delegation explained that bees (and other pollinators) contribute at least €22 billion to Europe’s economy. Measures taken by the EU include: support to beekeepers through agricultural policies; identifying threatened species; supporting bee research; and providing bee health training. The EU created a guide to streamline surveillance practices, which now has led to a clearer picture of the honeybee situation in the EU Member states.

Dr. Kirsten Traynor of the University of Maryland’s Entomology Department said that among bee species, honeybees are the most resistant to pressures due to their large colonies. Non-honeybee varieties, which travel alone or in small groups, fare worse. She described the bee population decline as “death by a thousand little cuts.” While beekeepers are losing almost 50 percent of their stock every year, there is no single cause. Instead, a collection of causes are to blame, including: pesticides used in fields and inside the honey combs, the spread of disease through the moving of bees for commercial agriculture purposes, and habitat destruction leading to nutritional deficiencies. Dr. Traynor highlighted studies that found residue of “varroacides” — neurotoxic pesticides used to kill the parasitic varroa mite that feeds on bees, but also known to adversely affect honeybee health — in 80 percent of wax. Rather than advocating for the suppression of pesticides, Dr. Traynor instead supported regular monitoring of varroa and intervention when necessary to keep it under control. Other recommendations included reducing the presence of pesticides in the hive by replacing old combs, and improving bee nutrition by planting more bee forage and cover crops, which naturally increase nitrogen in the soil.

Dr. Gabriele Ludwig of the Almond Board of California provided a West coast perspective on the effects of bees on almond production, which is highly dependent on honeybees. California is responsible for 100 percent of US almond production, and 80 percent of world production. For orchards to bloom, the bees must pollinate the trees. Over the last ten years the hive levels have been stable because bee-keepers are enacting more intensive measures to combat conditions conducive to disease within the hives. Higher costs of hive maintenance are passed on in higher prices to the consumer.

Molecular geneticist Dr. Jay Evans of the USDA-ARS Bee Research Lab seeks solutions for both small beekeepers and commercial enterprises, focusing on management of bees in the hive and in the field. Evans and visiting researchers from Europe and Asia have looked at ways to improve bee nutrition, minimize threats, provide resistance, and minimize disease impact. Evans said his lab has focused on identifying genetic traits providing resistance to varroa, dietary supplementation, and the honeybee stomach. Translating lab results into field results remains the challenge.

While farming is regional and no single policy will solve the worldwide bee population problems, EU-US collaboration would be beneficial in certain areas: surveillance on bee losses, research, and environmental policy. Dr. Traynor suggests standardizing the method of collecting samples to more easily compare results on both continents and improving coordination on policy measures to combat diseases and illegal importation of bees.

Participants were treated to a honey-based breakfast prepared by students from Slovenia, winners of the “The Cooking Kids” competition, an ongoing program in Slovenia, which educates younger generations on healthy and sustainable food options.

Audience members came away with increased knowledge of the causes of honey bee decimation, the impact on food supply, the effects on local, national and world economies, and current research by apiary scientists. They gained practical information on what steps can be taken to reverse the situation including: how individuals can provide healthy spaces for bees, what agricultural practices can be modified, and policy programs that could be enacted by local and national governments.

In the United States, the importance of honey bees is highlighted every year since 2009 by National Honey Bee Day. The occasion aims to build community awareness of the bee industry, through education and promotion. This year it will be celebrated on August 20.

This event was part of the European Month of Culture in Washington, DC and the EU Delegation’s monthly Conversations in Culture series.


Peter Kozmus