The month of honey bee conferences
March has always been the month of conferences and meetings. A must each year has always been the annual meeting of the Bee Institutes in Germany. This year I went to three conventions, all completely or mostly honey bee related. The first was the most traditional one: in Celle the Bee Institutes met to exchange their findings of the past year and plan for the next season. It was a special occasion, too. The Bee Institute in Celle exists since 1927, so the conference celebrated its 90th birthday. For me, this contained one of the most interesting insights of the month: already 90 years ago beekeepers were alarmed because of high colony losses. It was the reason to found a Bee Institute, to approach the problems in a holistic way. So, the problems change, but not the essence: we have to face them and find solutions based on science.
Honey bee science in collaboration with beekeepers
The president of the National Beekeeper Association in German (DIB) brought up another important point: Germany has the privileged situation of eight State Institutes for Apiculture all over the country (together with universities and other institutions working on honey bees). Last year, a Federal Institute in Braunschweig was founded in addition to the more regionally acting State Institutes. An important political sign. All these institutes do applied research for the beekeepers and in collaboration with them. They also generate the knowledge that is necessary to approach the problems and concerns in beekeeping.
Besides the festivities and the politics of course the main interest of this meeting was the presentation of scientific results. And there were plenty of them. In 36 talks and 41 posters there was far too much information to give all the details in this post. As the Bee Institutes want to solve beekeeping problems the dominant topics were pathology and risks coming from agriculture. Just a few highlights:
- A lucky coincidence in Hohenheim made them discover that lithium salts have high efficacy against varroa. The results are most promising, the treatments work at very low concentrations and by feeding. However, until a safe registered product will be on the market, we’ll have to wait for a while.
- All treatments have secondary effects. Beekeepers must be aware of this and do them right and at the right time. In the registration process, this issue isn’t addressed in enough detail.
- A new product for avoiding re-invasion is registered: Polyvar Yellow (Flumethrin) showed good efficacy in regions with high colony density. Re-invasion (Varroa mites entering a colony on adult bees from one colony to the other by robbing or drifting) is a big problem as it puts strong colonies at risk while the beekeeper feels safe after treating.
- Sublethal effects neonicotinoids include longevity and sperm quality of drones as well as reduced size of hypopharyngeal glands in nurse bees.
- A new method shows the effects of mixtures of pesticides used in real-life applications. It is now possible to test if these mixes increase the risks for honey bes.
The most specialized and applied of the March conferences
After the three days in Celle, I started to Bologna for a workshop of the Varroa task force of COLOSS. COLOSS is an acronym for COLony LOSses and the name of an international group that works on understanding and preventing them. The Varroa task force focusses on testing and further develop treatments against this parasitic mite. On the one hand, good treatments exist but may be unknown in certain parts of the world. Or they need adapt to the regional beekeeping practices. Groups like this are extremely important for advancing in practical questions: even a highly effective method can be ruined if it isn’t used correctly or at the wrong time. Ring-tests help to understand the peculiarities of regional situations.
A working group on oxalic acid did such a ring test testing summer treatments. Oxalic acid works only in brood free colonies. Therefore, for treating with this substance in summer, you have to make them broodless. One possibility is to extract all sealed brood from the colonies. The other is to cage the queen for 25 days so that all brood hatches and then treat. Colleagues from different countries all over Europe, Israel and Chile tested these methods. The caging method was the most effective and showed also least variability. However, there were difficulties concerning the timing of the treatment and higher swarming tendencies of colonies with caged queens. This means that now every country has to “refine” the method to make it work in their conditions.
Besides existing treatments, we discussed emerging treatments and how to test them to give sound recommendations to beekeepers. Based on science and not on opinions and commercial interests.
The end of the conference marathon in Berlin
Finally, end of March the German Ministry of Agriculture invited to the “International Bee Conference”. In three parallel sessions scientists and beekeepers spoke about honey bee pathology, biodiversity and nutrition and the impacts of pesticides and environment. Colony losses are a fact, but are highly variable in space and time. Projects like Epilobee show large differences in diverse European countries and also within the countries there is a big variability. Searching for reasons led to the conclusion that monitoring programs must improve, as well as the collaboration between researchers and the extension to beekeepers.
Global warming influences bee health as it promotes the dispersal of parasites. An example may be Tropilaelaps mites; in Asia they already are a bigger problem for beekeeping than Varroa. Temperate regions were safe because these parasites do not survive broodless periods in the colonies. But these periods are becoming an exception in many countries, so this mite may become the next threat.
In the biodiversity session the work of IPBES on pollination stressed the importance of international collaboration. This is crucial for conservation work as it gives the tools and expertise to do the steps from science into politics and practical implementation. The role of non-managed bees for food security was acknowledged, as well as that 40% of their species are endangered.
Finally, the session on pesticides and environment showed the complexity of this topic. Agriculture has changed not only in the pesticide use, but also in the structure of landscapes. Offering again more habitat for pollinators is a huge part of the solution, together with responsible use of agrochemicals. Pollinator decline will affect food security, not only in developing countries. In fact, the EU consumers would suffer most from increasing prices for fruit and vegetables caused by pollinator decline. Pesticides are a part of the problem, but other stressors play a role, too. Only a common constructive debate will bring solutions and results for this global problem.
Science, politics and communication
So at the end of my marathon of conferences I came back with the confirmation of my opinion: collaboration, discussions are crucial. Not accusations and simplifying complex problems. It was interesting to observe that all three meetings had this common tenor. However, collaboration is difficult, even between groups with apparently the same interests. In the Varroa group some colleagues didn’t share their results for whatever reason. Or they changed the protocol without telling the coordinators so their data cannot be compared to the others. The knowledge and experience is very diverse within this group. So imagine the collaboration between scientists, beekeepers and politics… here things get really complicated.
But, as a dear colleague said in Berlin, that something is difficult doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try. There are plenty of examples that collaboration works and gives good results. Always when all participants were willing to come together, see their part of the problem and communicate. It’s the way to solve problems.