Photo by Marta Domínguez
Honeybees in Berlin and around the world are dying from parasites, pesticides and climate change... and their absence will do more than sting. Without them, how long will humans survive?
Every spring, there comes a point when beekeepers across the globe lift the lids off their hives to see how their bees weathered the winter. This used to be a moment Dr. Benedikt Polaczek looked forward to.
“I’ve been keeping bees for 45 years now,” says the melittologist, who researches the insects in a small wooden hut in a green backyard of the Free University. Every day after work he returns home to care for his 10 honeybee colonies. Now that temperatures are low the bees stay within their hives, but moving in closer you can hear their steady buzzing sound, vibrating through air sweetly scented from wax and honey.
“I can still remember the golden age of beekeeping,” says Polaczek, who was born in Poland and moved to Berlin in 1987. “When this work just brought joy. Not worry and frustration, like now.”
I know these are insects, but it's heartbreaking when your bees die. It feels like you failed them.
‘Now’ is a time when an average of 10,000 bees per colony, around 30 percent, die each winter. No one has been able to isolate a single cause for this steady death, but the effects in terms of numbers are clear. In the UK and the US, honey bee populations dropped 50 percent in the last 25 years. In the Middle East as many as 85 percent of bees have disappeared and in some regions of China, such as Sichuan province, the busy pollinators have been wiped out completely.
“The bee population decline is a global problem – one we have barely begun to understand,” says Dr. Jürgen Tautz, one of Germany’s leading bee experts. “If bees were to truly disappear, the world would lose its principal pollinator.” Honeybees account for 80 percent of insect pollination. We owe 30 percent of our food supply to their efforts and without them, fruit and vegetable crops would dramatically decline... and mankind would suffer the consequences. According to the professor from Würzburg University, this horror scenario is theoretically possible.
In Germany, the decline of bees began in the 1970s, when Soviet soldiers introduced the parasitic mite Varroa destructor. European bees struggle to handle this mite, leaving them weakened and more susceptible to potentially fatal viruses. Furthermore, the modernisation of agriculture has led to vast plots of land being used exclusively for a single crop.
“That means there is really only one brief flowering period for bees to collect pollen. They become both malnourished and undernourished,” Polaczek explains. Add to that the significant pesticide exposure all insects face, and one begins to see the precarious situation bees find themselves in.
The synergistic effects of these factors have already led to several catastrophes. During the winter of 2002-2003, 300,000 out of 900,000 bee colonies in Germany perished. After an inquiry, the Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL) published a report stating that several factors had caused the massive losses.
At the top of the list were Varroa mites and insect neurotoxins called neonicotinoids, particularly imadacloprid, produced by Bayer CropScience. The report carefully noted that imadacloprid had been in use since the 1990s and that as there had been no notable bee deaths until 2003, it could not be held solely responsible.
But a mere five years later, in 2008, a further 11,500 bee colonies perished in Baden-Württemberg. This time another Bayer CropScience neonicotinoid, called clothianidin, was identified as the cause – although even then only indirectly. According to the BVL, the distribution of the pesticide and not the substance itself was to blame. The clothianidin had been intended for corn crops. Because it had failed to properly adhere to the stalks, however, it became aerosolised, eventually landing on rapeseed, dandelion and fruit orchards, where bees ingested the poison and died.
In response, the BVL suspended the use of neonicotinoids on cornfields and tightened rules for its use on rapeseed crops. It is unclear how long that suspension will last or how effective the tightened rules will be. According to Greenpeace, however, what is clear is that Germany continues to use 25-100 tonnes of Bayer CropScience’s neonicotinoids every year, while a further 1000 tonnes are exported.
To Polaczek, the 2008 affair carries the mark of a cover-up job. “Bayer CropScience paid a sum to all beekeepers who lost colonies – I think it was €150 per colony. That money was not just to cover damages, it was also to keep everyone quiet.”
Hobby apiarist Clemens Harder tells a similar story. “A group of beekeepers was invited to take part in a summit about neonicotinoids after the 2008 scandal, but one day before it was scheduled, it got cancelled. No explanation was given. I think the idea was that if they keep us waiting, we’ll eventually give up.”
Harder, who works for HeileHaus e.V. in Kreuzberg, has not given up, however. In fact, the very reason he got into beekeeping six years ago was to study their decline. His hives stand on little oases atop roofs on Stresemannstraße and Waldemarstraße, where HeileHaus is situated.
“Unfortunately no single pesticide ban can make a real difference,” says Harder, who used to work in food safety and still follows the latest research. “It isn’t a single pesticide that’s the problem, but the entire cocktail currently used. Sure, farmers may stay under the permitted limit when they spray each one, but when you look at the end sum...”
Harder knows a farmer in Fläming who did not see a single bee on his rapeseed fields last summer. “And that’s just a single story!” he exclaims, running his hands through his hair in exasperation. “Too many agriculturalists and consumers just want their food cheap and quick, without realising the consequence those choices carry.” He adds: “It sounds crazy to say this, but the fact is that these days urban bees are healthier than rural bees.”
Jürgen Hans, a fellow urban beekeeper who was also head of the Imkerverband Berlin until September 2012, agrees with Harder. According to Hans, if you leave a bee colony in the same spot in the countryside, it will make 10kg of honey. In the city, colonies make 20-40kg. “The reason for that is that they have food all year round here,” says Hans, motioning across the garden in Steglitz where he keeps five colonies.
“But that doesn’t mean this is an easy hobby.” In the last year alone, Hans lost four colonies to the Varroa mite. Another colony died last autumn following the strong temperature fluctuations. In cold temperatures, honeybees form a cluster and vibrate their wings to keep the hive at 35°C. “When you hold your hand close you can feel its warmth,” he says, gently lifting the wooden lid off a hive to demonstrate. When it gets warmer, that bee cluster expands and bees begin to lay eggs around its edges and eat the honey reserves. Should temperatures drop again, the cluster shrinks back, leaving some bees starving and the eggs freezing. This results in dead clumps of bees, which can be as big as a football.
“I know they are insects, but it’s truly heartbreaking when your bees die. It feels like you failed them,” Hans says. “They are like a dog for me – they can sense your mood. This summer around 750 school kids came to see my bees. None wore protection, but only one got stung once, because I was there keeping my bees calm.”
The idea that bees should not be seen as insects was put forward by Tautz in his book Phänomen Honigbiene. “Bees in a colony form a super-organism that can only be understood in its sum, rather than individual parts,” says Tautz. “The fact they keep the hive warm, their low reproductive rate, their advanced cognitive skills – all of these factors support the argument of viewing the extremely complex colony structure as one animal.”
Generally that structure is stable, but when environmental challenges – meaning viral and parasitic infections, climate change, and pesticides – become too much, it can collapse. This is known as colony collapse disorder (CCD), which has also been tied to ‘zombie bees’ in the US (infected by maggots or scuttle flies, they cluster near outdoor lights at night and wander aimlessly until their demise).
These ‘zom-bees’ seem to be doing what all sick bees do: they leave their hive in order to protect the colony. Beekeepers often find hives that are completely empty, without any kind of explanation. “It’s a macabre situation,” says Hans. “If you tell a farmer you lost 40,000 bees you get laughed at. But if they lose just 100 cattle, it’s a huge deal and everyone takes note.”
When it comes to the plight of bees, it seems Berliners, at least, are taking note. “When I joined the Neukölln Imkerverband six years ago, there were only elderly, male members,” says Harder. “Now it’s completely mixed, young and old, men and women, from all professional backgrounds.”
Perhaps this interest in beekeeping is an expression of city dwellers’ need to find a new connection to nature. Or perhaps it is the result of people like Polaczek, who offers free introductory beekeeping courses at the Free University.
“Our efforts were enough to raise beekeeper numbers by 3.2 percent last year, and get them to keep two percent more colonies,” Polaczek said. Those numbers may not seem like a lot, but they were sufficient to keep Berlin’s bee population stable. Tautz, however, warns that the battle to save bees is far from won.
“As I see it, the only hope for bees is that they can genetically adapt to conquer the new problems they face.” Such evolutionary processes take time, however. “The big question is: what will be faster, the efficiency of threats to bees, or bees’ adaptive possibilities?”
Einstein supposedly once said that if bees become extinct, humanity will follow suit four years later. “I’d say if you imagine a scale of 1-10 towards bee extinction, we’re at point five,” says Harder. Polaczek agrees, stressing that mankind needs to change its course. “In effect we are destroying our future generations’ livelihoods,” says the apiarist, whose father and grandfather kept bees before him.
In nature everything is connected. Bees are the canary in the coal mine, signaling a fault in our current state of play. “As a beekeeper, you learn that bees only survive if you love them,” says Polaczek. “But maybe if we all finally assume responsibility for our part in bees dying, it will be enough to keep them safe.”