Nieuws - 8 juni 2011

No pesticides would be worse than no bees

Is it the varroa mite, the pesticides, or do the bees just need a bit more loving care? At the debate on the bee deaths held in the Forum yesterday evening, there were almost as many explanations as there were people present. But on one point there was a consensus: if the honey bee dies out, it would not be a world disaster.

Rob Plomb talks with great enthusiasm about his bees.
The atmosphere at the debate organized by the RUW (Rural Wageningen) association seems convivial enough. Five panels are comfortably seated on black foam rubber sofas. An audience of about fifty people - mainly beekeepers - are listening attentively. There are no heated discussions, but equally there is no question of unanimity about the origins of the high bee mortality. Shortage of flowers, inbreeding, or too long-term use of the same hive boxes? The list of ideas grows longer by the minute, and not one of them gets dismissed as downright nonsense.   

More love or less pesticide?
Kees Verrips of De Werkbij, one of the few commercial beekeepers in the Netherlands, lays the blame on amateur beekeepers. 'In the old days, an amateur beekeeper would have at least twenty swarms, but nowadays they only really maintain a couple of hives. This means there is not enough practical knowledge.' Piet Nibbelink, an amateur beekeeper himself, takes a different angle and declares that bees need more love. 'The training of beekeepers pays no attention to this at all.' His stand on the matter receives a round of applause. On the other hand, colleague Hermie Ubbink adds as a footnote, 'my bees do not live by love alone.' She thinks a big part of the problem is the loss of biodiversity. 'A swarm needs at least 25 kilograms of nectar and the same quantity of pollen. Many swarms don't manage that anymore.'  Experiences regarding insecticides such as neo-nicotine vary too. 'Since neo-nicotines were permitted in Slovenia, bees have been dying out en masse', says Slovenian Romana Gaspirc. Michel Glorius, an intern at Bijen@WUR and a beekeeper himself, cannot imagine there is such a direct causal relationship. 'Results of lab experiments cannot be compared with the situation in the field. In the field, bees just fly around treated plants.'

'Time to take off the blinkers'
No one claims to know the one main cause of the deaths. 'I am an agriculturalist, but I have never seen an issue with as many sides to it as this one of the bees', says Wietze Bruinsma. But this amateur beekeeper is annoyed by what he sees as Wageningen UR's one-sided stance in insisting that the varroa mite is the main culprit. 'Communication in bee research could be a lot better. Tjeerd Blacquière (the researcher who was criticized in the TV programme Zembla) should have been here this evening.' Bruinsma is not the only person to think so. 'That Zembla documentary, The murder of the honey bee, was just a cut-and-paste job, but there was a kernel of truth in it', says another bee researcher. 'Bijen@WUR is doing research on the permits for crop protection substances, and if you do that you must not be blinkered.'

'Stopping using pesticides is much worse'
There is only one point on which there is a real consensus among the panels: nobody here considers the bee deaths a really major problem. 'If we stop using pesticides, that would have a far bigger impact on the food supply than mass bee deaths', Michael Smith is sure. Beekeeper Rob Plomp does not want to overestimate the importance of his profession either. 'I have to phone farmers to ask if I could please put a hive box on their land, and nature managers don't want my hives at all because they are in competition with wild pollinators. And hey, these deaths do have one advantage at least. Thanks to all the media attention, there haven't been so many people interested in becoming beekeepers in years.'