Europe hopes havens will give bees a break

Plan Bee encourages governments to set aside safe places for bees to buzz.

Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters
Plan bee: Acres of plants offering high-protein nectar, such as this mustard blossom, could help boost the health of bees.

Hoping to avert a growing catastrophe, the European Parliament has approved the creation of bee "recovery zones" across the Continent.

Intended to boost plummeting bee numbers – as well as stave off further agricultural losses – the measure garnered the support of an overwhelming majority of members when they voted on the measure late last month. The recovery zones will provide bees places to buzz that teem with a diversity of plants rich in nectar and pollen, as well as free of pesticides.

Despite their ponderous bureaucratic moniker, the zones are based on a simple, age-old idea, says Raffaele Cirone, president of the Federation of Italian Beekeepers.

"They are just grassy lands left uncultivated and unfertilized, where flowers can grow freely, to the benefit of insects who feed on them," Mr. Cirone says. "Leaving areas uncultivated is part of the farming and beekeeping tradition in Italy and many other European countries."

The idea is not just good for the insects. Intensive agriculture can impoverish the land. Bee-friendly production calls for alternating fields of crops with uncultivated grassy areas. These grassy swaths are ideal places for apiaries.

Switzerland, which is not part of the European Union, already has a law setting mandatory quotas of "environmental compensation zones," ranging from 1 to 2 percent of cultivated areas, says Theo Nicollerat, president of a Swiss beekeeping association. "Rather than for recovering insects, they are mostly intended as a tool to preserve farming land."

Now, the European Parliament is pushing for the creation of similar quotas across the 27 member states of the European Union. The resolution does not set specific quotas, but its main proponent, British Member of Parliament Neil Parish, says he hopes governments promote the creation of enough recovery zones within their borders to transform at least 1 percent of the continent's cultivated areas into havens for bees.

In addition, the resolution from Strasbourg promotes the idea of "compensation zones," which would be cultivated with protein-rich flowers. Poor nutrition from monoculture crops is believed to be one factor behind the trouble for bees.

Modern agricultural practices, in which few acres go untilled and where food crops have been shunned in favor of biofuels, has cut the amount of bee-friendly landscapes across Europe, Cirone says.

"In the past two decades, the improper use of pesticides has forced most of us to leave the areas close to cultivated fields and to move to the hills," says Cirone, a beekeeper. He welcomed the EU measure because it would encourage farmers to go back to traditional practices that benefit bees. "It's the least we can do if we want to stop this emergency."

The rapid decline of bee populations continues to baffle scientists. Discovered by North American beekeepers two years ago, the so-called Colony Collapse Disorder has since spread across much of Western Europe. In the past two years, Italy has lost almost half of its bees.

The causes of the disorder are not thoroughly understood. Originally, it was blamed largely on climate changes and excessive pesticide use. A study published in May by researchers from the universities of Plymouth and Stirling, in Britain, and Poitiers (in France) suggests other factors are playing big roles, including the lack of nutritional food for bees.

Indeed, certain kinds of flowers, including white clover and wild mustard, produce nectar that is particularly rich in protein and other nutrients that are useful to the well-being of insects, according to the research. The cultivation of much of Europe's arable land with crops and vegetables that are favored by humans, but poor in nutritious nectars, have deprived bees of a major protein source.

The disappearance of bees has caused honey production to be cut in half. Agriculture across Europe is also beginning to suffer: Many fruit and vegetable crops – from almonds and pears to soybeans and cucumbers – depend on bees for pollination. In fact, about three-quarters of all food grown in Europe is somehow dependent on bees, according to information provided by the EU Parliament.

Italy, which is home to some of the continent's highest numbers of hives and one of the most valuable fruit and nut harvests, has already suffered $100 million in losses from the decline of bees, according to Italy's beekeepers association. Experts are now saying that southern Italy's entire cherry crop could be wiped out within a few years. Europe-wide, an estimated $1.25 billion in agriculture has already disappeared with the bees.

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What's killing the bees?

Changing food – Bees need a balanced diet, but fields are increasingly planted with the same type of crops, as well as genetically modified plants.

Pesticide use – Chemicals aimed at killing crop pests can also kill beneficial insects, including bees.

Mites – Poor nutrition and pesticides could be making bees even more susceptible to a blood-sucking mite.

Climate change – Recent rainy summers across Europe have harmed bees.

Source: European Parliament