French honey at risk as dying bees put industry in danger

Fred Tanneau, AFP | Bees on honey frames in Ploerdut, western France.

The collapse of honeybee colonies due to climate change and the use of insecticides threatens to ruin another year of French honey harvests, French beekeepers warned on Tuesday.


Across the country, French beekeepers are sounding the alarm: their bees are dying, and their honey is in danger.

“Bees are collecting nothing!" said French farming union MODEF (Family Farmers' Defence Movement) on Tuesday. “The first part of the season has been catastrophic,” Robert Aigoin, MODEF's president, told FRANCE 24. “Consumers will need to watch out, it’s going to be very difficult to find French honey this year,” Aigoin warned.

Dismal French honey harvests are unfortunately nothing new. Back in 2017, headlines warned of “catastrophic” harvests, one year after France’s lowest ever honey production season. In 2016 the country produced just 9,000 of their usual 18,000 to 20,000 tons of honey.

France is the fifth largest producer of honey in the European Union. Other European beekeeping hubs such as Spain, Romania, Poland, Hungary, Greece, and Italy have all experienced fluctuations in the amount of honey they produce.

France and Hungary were the only two EU countries to experience a sharp drop in honey production between 2017 and 2018, each of about 5,000 tonnes. But according to the European Commission, France, Romania, and Greece all reported having fewer hives last year than they did three or four years ago.

“It’s not only France,” Henri Clément, secretary-general for the National Union of French Beekeepers (UNAF) told FRANCE 24. “My friend is a beekeeper in Italy who told me that in 43 years of professional beekeeping, this is the worst year he’s ever had.”

Climate change to blame?

The French honeybee death toll has skyrocketed in the past two decades, from an average of 5% of the colony per year in the 1990s to a minimum of 30% today nearly a third of the colony every year, a decline that has been widely attributed to climate change.

"We've been alarmed for a while now about the impact of climate change,” said Clément. “It’s the biggest concern for beekeepers. Earlier this year we had late frosts and winds from the north that dried out flowers, preventing them from producing any nectar.”

“The winter was so temperate that the bees had no trouble reproducing, but without flowers or nectar the colonies are rapidly collapsing,” MODEF added. "In the hives, there is nothing to eat. Beekeepers are having to feed them with syrup because they risk dying from hunger.”

Frank Aletru, president of the National Beekeepers Union (SNA), told FRANCE 24 that unusually late frosts in May killed off many of the plants that typically attract bees. “Three quarters of the land produced no harvests,” said Aletru, “and the remaining quarter has produced much less than normal.”

Robert Aigoin echoed this concern about changing climate patterns. “It’s not normal,” he said. “Northern winds used to last a couple days, maybe a five or six. Now, they can last for a month.”

Bring the bees back

Another major source of decline in honeybee populations is the widespread use of pesticides.

Neonicotinoids, or pesticides whose chemical composition mimics the structure of nicotine, are particularly dangerous for bees because they directly attack their central nervous system. The EU has been gradually restricting the use of pesticides that target honeybees, and last year France became the first European country to ban all five of the major neonicotinoids.

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However, Aletru notes that any form of insecticide is still bound to pose some threat to the bees.

“Pesticides, even organic ones, are still pesticides,” said Aletru, adding that he views repellents as a last resort, only to be used when there is no other solution. “We need to start relying on sustainable agriculture instead of chemical agriculture,” he insisted.

Aletru and the SNA instead advocate for sustainable alternatives such as permaculture, or agriculture based on the simulation of features and patterns already found in nature. Instead of competing with natural ecosystems, a common critique of traditional agricultural methods, the goal of permaculture is to synchronise agricultural practices with Earth’s natural processes.

“We need to remember that the honeybee appeared on Earth about 80 million years ago. The first hominids, three million years ago. Agriculture, eight to ten thousand years ago. And intensive agriculture, 70 years ago,” said Aletru. “In only 70 years, we have severely altered the landscapes and ecosystems around us.”

Clément is also calling for the protection of honeybees, who are the primary pollinators of over a third of the Earth’s food resources.

“If we lose the bees, we lose fruits, vegetables, even grains. And without those, we begin to lose birds, mammals, and so on,” he said. “Bees are a cornerstone of biodiversity.”

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