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Sticky Future for Bees

Julie GregsonApril 26, 2007

Bee populations in the US have dramatically dropped over the last six months. German beekeepers have also faced losses in recent years. But here fears are greater that the tradition of beekeeping could face extinction.

A masked bee-keeper and his bees
Bee populations have been devastated - the reason why is unclearImage: BilderBox

No one knows the exact reason for the US crisis, which has led to more than a quarter of the country's bee colonies being wiped out. Losses of a similar proportion were reported in Germany four years ago and a monitoring system was set up in an ongoing attempt to find an answer to the mystery.

This year, Burkhard Schricker, from the Free University in Berlin, said reported deaths were on average under 10 percent.

"In Germany that is quite normal," he said. "The situation has been exaggerated."

The panic inspired by these reports reflects, however, the importance of the honey bee. In Germany alone, the agricultural value of the pollination work done by bees amounts to some 2.5 billion euros ($3.41 billion), according to Schricker.

"The honeybee is, after cows and pigs, the third most important animal in agricultural terms," he said.

Invaluable workers

A bee about to land on the blossom of a cherry tree
When it comes to pollination, they're really the bees kneesImage: AP

Environmentally, the insects' work is invaluable.

"They also pollinate wild plants," Schricker said. "If that didn't happen any more there would be soil erosion and no feed more for our animals. In just a few years the landscape wouldn't be green anymore, but brown."

Beekeepers here in Germany have been facing problems since the 1980s when the varroa mite, one possible contributing fact to the "Colony Collapse Disorder" reported in the US, was inadvertently introduced.

The parasites suck on the bees' larvae and weaken their immune system, spreading parasites into the bargain. This has resulted in the re-emergence of diseases that disappeared long ago.

Pesticides and antibiotics used to treat feedstuffs and agricultural products also threaten bee colonies. The danger posed by GM crops still has yet to be determined.

Labor of love

Beekeeper with his bees
Beekeeping can be a time consuming, but extremely rewarding hobbyImage: DW-TV

Unlike in the United States, beekeeping in Germany often tends to be a labor of love. Petra Friedrich of the German Beekeepers' Federation said her organization has some 81,000 members on its books -- all of them small-scale or hobby beekeepers with an average of nine bee colonies per member.

Only some 500 to 600 professional beekeepers exist in Germany as a whole, despite the national love of honey. Only 20 percent of the honey consumed here is also domestically produced.

The nature of beekeeping in Germany has helped keep the lid on some of the problems, Schricker said.

"In America they are all professional beekeepers who move around with their bees and make money by pollinating crops," he added. "They are not as concerned with the wellbeing of their bees. That is there is not the same degree of care and supervision. Here we almost look after every single colony."

Age factor

Bees in comb
Honey as well as wax and royal jelly are products that come from beekeepingImage: AP

On the other hand, German apiary faces its own difficulties.

"Beekeepers here tend to be loners," said Schricker, who has been studying bees since becoming a student of zoology in the 1960s. "That means they don't have such a strong lobby. There isn't really any public funding. Politicians haven't realized the value of honey bees."

Age is also a major issue. Friedrich said federation members are, on average, 60 years old, while most of the people taking up the hobby also tend to be 40 and over.

The mobility required in today's society makes it difficult to persuade young people to take up the hobby, she said.

"The age structure remains a problem," Friedrich said. "The tendency is positive. More women are joining. Up to now it has always tended to be a bit of a male domain. But more beekeepers are dying than are taking up the hobby. If we are to keep it alive, we need lots of new people."

Across the country, a whole variety of courses are on offer to introduce people all ages to beekeeping. In Bavaria, a leasing scheme has been launched to allow potential beekeepers to try out the pastime.

City bees

18.03.2007 pz bienen 3
A recruitment drive is on to find young beekeepersImage: DW-TV

And although beekeeping has traditionally been very much a rural pastime that does not mean that city dwellers have to be excluded.

"Even in Berlin people keep bees," Schricker said. "In allotments, on rooftop gardens and even on their balconies."

A Berlin bee has even been bred especially to suit urban conditions.

"It has certain characteristics such as docility and it is also attracted to blossom that you can find in the city -- tree blossom mainly," he said.

While people may not have to live in the country to become a beekeeper, a dollop of idealism helps. The profits that can be made from selling hand-harvested honey tend to be limited.

"It's a nice hobby," Schricker said. "You also have to appreciate the social value too. Keeping bees is a very good way to react to climate change. Here on the ground it's a way each one of us can do something for the future."