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Will Kenya be drawn into Europe’s woes on ‘declining’ bees?

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While the myth of declining bee populations has fuelled and mobilised an entire sector ‘protecting’ them, the world’s bee population is not declining; it is growing. PHOTO | POOL

It is possible textbooks will relay current stories of a global decline in bees as an extraordinary example of the world’s post-Internet fake news.

Yet, as our Parliament is asked by campaigners, once again, to ban the world’s most-used insecticides to save bees, it is misinformation that could still create agricultural havoc for Kenya.

For, while the myth of declining bee populations has fuelled and mobilised an entire sector ‘protecting’ them, the world’s bee population is not declining; it is growing.

READ: How pesticides risk wiping out bees in Kenya

As Forbes expressed, in a headline in April last year, ‘Honeybees are not in decline’, while the more scientific Nature magazine reported in drier tonnes in December 2022 that claims of a decline in bees were ‘somewhat inaccurate’.

In fact, there was a 50-year decline in honeybee populations from the 1940s that only slowed from the 1970s, before turning back to growth some 25 years ago.

Data from the US shows that it had six million beehives in 1947, but only four million by 1970, and three million by 1990.

It was a fall that coincided with the spread of a mite that lives on bees, the Varroa destructor mite, which carries a long-standing bee virus, the deformed wing virus.

The virus can be deadly for bees. But not all bees are prone. Wild bees with the mite and virus do not appear to die, while southern hemisphere bees were seemingly less affected than northern hemisphere bees.

However, the growth in honeybee populations nearly everywhere since the mid-1990s points to the possibility of an emerging resilience to the virus.

Indeed, the recovery has been so strong that Nature’s December 2022 review of six decades of bee population data from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation found that the global population of honeybees had doubled by 2017 from 1961 levels, with the mid-20th Century fall now recouped.

Bee populations are now more productive, too, with honey output almost tripling, and beeswax production more than doubling.

Yet, with figures from the US and the UK showing steady growth trends, the EU has chosen not to focus on bee population data.

Individual EU countries, such as Poland, have reported sharp growth in honeybee populations. But for the EU, the rise, everywhere, of the honeybee, is extremely embarrassing.

For, in 2013, it banned one of the world’s newest and safest group of pesticides, neonicotinoids, to save bees from the ‘decline in population’ that it is still reporting as ongoing across all its platforms.

As a matter of fact, neonicotinoids didn’t exist in the 1940s. The first neonicotinoid was put on sale in 1999.

Despite huge pressure from environmental groups, the US has consistently refused to ban agrochemicals, because the agricultural costs would be enormous and there is little evidence that neonicotinoids kill bees.

READ: Bees bar: Why Kenyans must be vigilant

Therefore, with US honeybee colonies growing by 16 percent in the last seven years, even as neonicotinoids remain its most widely used insecticide, the EU has now pivoted its attention to wild, unmanaged bees, and here things have become very fractious.

The EU does not parade any wild bee population data, but in the UK, surveys of wild bee density have found constant levels.

Yet, the EU is now determined to save wild bees, forcing the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) to produce new guidance on how to assess the risks to bees from pesticides.

In bridging both politics and science, the EFSA still states, in a seemingly forlorn tone, that “the studies available in the literature reporting effects of pesticides on bumble bees and solitary bees are scarce”.

Indeed, in a full review from 1980 to 2019, there is little to support any claim that neonicotinoids kill Bumble Bees, with scientists even finding that wild bees have enzymes, which means that at least two neonicotinoids are simply not toxic for them.