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Bee Breakdown

DW staff / DPA (th)May 14, 2008

Bee colonies have begun dying off in alarming numbers all around the world. The collapse of bee populations has multiple causes, none of which have easy remedies, a German biology professor has warned.

Bee flies towards a flower
Bees are key pollinatorsImage: AP

Some German apiarists lost their entire stock of bees over the past winter.

"It's almost a natural disaster," Juergen Tautz of the University of Wuerzburg, said Wednesday.

Tautz warned that bee populations are dwindling dramatically, with the losses averaging more than 30 percent despite the mild winter. Normally, a winter kills about 10 percent of swarms in Germany, Tautz said.

The direct cause of most bee deaths in Germany has been the parasitic varroa mite. The indirect causes for the bees' lack of immunity to parasites and other illnesses is varied, Tautz said.

He sited breeding programs that create docile bees and modern farming methods of hurting populations.

"Nowadays it only takes one tenth as many mites to wipe out a swarm as it took a decade ago," he said.

France abuzz with worry

It's not only Germany that is worried.

In the United States, a full 36 percent of commercially managed hives were lost since last year, according to a recent survey by the Apiary Inspectors of America. The varroa mite, pesticide drift and new diseases are thought to have led to the collapse there, which endangered the country's agricultural industries that rely on bees as pollinators.

BdT Von Bienen und Blüten
Bees have become more docile and susceptible to diseaseImage: AP

In France, beekeepers are watching their worker drones disappear by the tens of millions. In 2005, two pesticides suspected of killing off bees were banned in France. Beekeepers were optimistic that the decade-long decline in honey harvests would end.

While the ban seemed to stabilize populations, end-of-winter mortality rates shot up again in 2008, with up to 60 percent of hives missing in action, according to the news agency AFP.

"We don't know what is going on, and we are calling everything into question," beekeeper and honey producer Franck Aletru, whose 2200 hives are in the Vendee region in western France told AFP earlier this year.

Worries have extended across Europe, where 30 percent of bee species are threatened by a combination of factors.

No easy solutions

One of the problems is that breeding programs have created docile, weak bees, Tautz said. Furthermore, modern farming methods have included practices harmful to bees.

The bees cannot cope with the greater use of insecticides and monoculture has eliminated variety in their diets, Tautz said.

"The bees' imbalanced diet makes them weak and susceptible to illness," he said.