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Naranjo Azahar Valencia

Why are bees dying? Danger for Valencian oranges

As a grower of Valencian orangesToday I am going to talk about a phenomenon that worries me a lot: the massive death of bees due to unknown causes. Not only because of its immediate implication in human food and biodiversity, but also because it may be an indication of what is to come.

Figures indicate that, in the USA, the honey bee population has declined by 30% to 75% in the last 5 years (in other countries, the figures may be similar). This fact is of great importance in the agri-food chain because of the pollination carried out by bees.

To gauge the impact of these insects, the UN is developing a study on pollination and food, the conclusions of which are expected in December 2015 (that's the thing about this organization, it is not very, very fast). The study is being carried out by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

The disappearance of bees does not mean that we will run out of food. There are many foods that do not require pollination, such as corn, wheat or rice. In other words, the backbone of the world's diet is assured, but there are two clear impacts:

  1. immediate price hikes in the rest of the food as the supply decreases (and since I am evil, I will say that I am not sure that this increase will be passed on to the farmer).
  2. food would be much less enjoyable! It is estimated that 90% of apples would not be produced, 100% of almonds, 90% of asparagus, avocado, broccoli or onions. Approximately half of the mandarins and 20% of the lemons to give a few examples.

The cause of this massive bee die-off is not yet known. There are some associations and clues but there is no key correlation.

The current theory is that a mass die-off is occurring due to a combination of the cumulative effects of pesticides, particularly neonicotinoids, together with parasites and diseases, which, because the bee is weaker due to pesticides and fungicides, have a lethal effect that it would not otherwise have (says Peter Neumann, Head of the Institute of Bee Health at the University of Bern in Switzerland).

Beekeepers are faced with dead colonies for no apparent reason. The whole colony is extinguished by a phenomenon called 'Colony Collapse Disorder' (CCD).

The problem with these pesticides is that they are "systemic", i.e. they permeate the entire plant and their effect lasts much longer than other pesticides. The irony is that neonicotinoids are actually safer for farmers because they evaporate less into the environment and their application is more controlled.

This type of pesticide is seen as a key agent in this process. In the USA, the US Environmental Protection Agency is being sued for approving the use of sulfoxaflor: a type of chemical insecticide from the neonicotinoid family.

Currently, there is a partial moratorium on the use of sulfoxaflor in the EU for 2 years. However, this is not the solution to the problem: In Australia they do not suffer from CCD and yet in France / Spain / etc. we continue to suffer from it. What is clear is that in this EU dominated by lobbies and deeply bureaucratic, it will be very difficult to go further (sorry political opinion, is that every day I see less usefulness in this megalithic European administration that brings much expense and little benefit for the day to day of an SME in Spain).

Other researchers focus on pests such as Varroa, a parasitic mite that causes varroasis, which causes a great mortality of bees and spreads rapidly. Other bee infections and diseases are also being analyzed.

The other factor that they believe may be influencing this is the limitation of crop variety and, therefore, of food for bees. This is especially true in the USA, where large areas are devoted to monocultures, but is of little consequence in Europe.

Without bees, we will have to find an alternative for pollination. In parts of China, wild bees have been wiped out by the massive use of pesticides, so farmers have to manually pollinate fruit using brushes. Recently, Harvard has developed the first pollinating robot, with multiple applications such as spying, but whose main function would be to replace the pollination work of bees.

In my humble opinion, the cause cannot be neonicotinoids alone (although they are determinant) but a combination of factors in which the abuse of pesticides and fungicides play a key role. Up to 9 different types of pesticides and fungicides have been found in bee pollen.

Bees are quite resistant and beekeepers have been able to rebuild their colonies, albeit at a high cost. This is cause for optimism but a solution has to be found and, through responsible and environmentally friendly farming techniques, all farmers are obliged to collaborate in solving the problem and improving our environments.

This problem affects me very much. I have the orange trees now in bloom and this is the time of the year when you most perceive the usefulness of bees and the beauty of nature. We cannot go on like this, the agriculture developed after World War II based on chemicals must be modernized and based on respect for nature and its cycles.

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