Threat to French honey crop

Bee populations are declining

Bee deaths are being blamed on certain modern pesticides which beekeepers would like to see banned

HONEY production is dropping severely in France with beekeepers blaming the use of certain pesticides.

Last year’s production was just 15,000 tonnes, compared to 33,000 in 1995, and mortality rates of bee colonies have been rising, averaging about 15-30% per year depending on the region.

One experienced beekeeper from the Rhône, Jacques Freney, told Le Monde the mortality rate used to be 6% of his bees until 2,000, rising to 11% in 2006. It was now 29%.

The finger of blame is being pointed at neonicotinoid pesticides, which first arrived on the market in the 1990s. A wide variety of crops – tomatoes, apricots, melons – are treated preventively with these chemicals which then spread to all parts of the plant.

The EU recently put a two-year moratorium on the use of three treatments on certain crops, but the measure is facing legal attacks from chemical firms and other pesticides remain in common use.

Some even reportedly carry wording claiming they are safe for bees, so are used even when plants are in flower.

However, new research indicates that bees may be more sensitive to the substances than previously thought, even in very low doses, especially if there is repeated exposure.

Mr Freney said: “The chemical acts on the central nervous system like a hard drug, causing over-excitation that leads to the insect’s death.”

Last year he had only 22 “productive” hives out of 122, he said. The others were not “full of dying bees” but were “empty”, because the bees had not been well enough to return to the colony.

Bee industry body Unaf has called on the Agriculture Ministry to ban the chemicals completely and review permissions for “bee” labelling. It is backing use of a European “bee friendly” label to distinguish products grown in a way that is safe for bees.

Bad weather has also been blamed but bees are also vulnerable to certain funguses and mites and to Asian hornets, which have also spread in France in recent years.

Photo: John Severns

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