Bee Buzz: the clock is ticking for South American bee colonies

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Bee Buzz: the clock is ticking for South American bee colonies

Albert Einstein famously warned that without bees mankind would only have another 100 years to live. Despite their key role in the food chain they are increasingly under threat, and South America is no exception.

Latin America is lucky when it comes to bees. There are still plenty of them and in some areas their colonies are on the rise. But even so there are worrying trends that pose a threat to future populations.


The parasite varroa, a rise in pesticide use, decline in flora, dwindling water supplies, and an increase in genetically modified crops are just a few of them.

University of Chile's agricultural sciences lecturer Dr Fernando Santibáñez, says the U.S. offers a salutory lesson where bee populations have more than halved over the last 60 years.

"The use of pesticides there has been so intense that the survival of bees in California has become a major concern."

Their decline has threatened the survival of major crops such as California's lucrative almond industry.

There a now just 2.3 million bee colonies compared with 5 million in the late 1940s according to Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) data.

Santibáñez points out that Latin America is in a far better position due to luck more than design.

"Probably because of our natural conditions, we have not had a collapse as intense as in California. We have the mountains and we still have wildlife areas that sustain populations. We are fortunate but not because we are smarter."


Others in the industry agree. Spanish bee consultant Antonio Gómez, a manager at AG Pajuelo, believes the reason why bee colonies are declining in the northern hemisphere is because of overdevelopment.

"In Europe centuries of exploitation have left the continent depleted whereas in Latin America you have only had two centuries to exhaust your resources," he quips.

But Latin America is running out of time.  Santibáñez says a decline in Chile's flora over the last 50 years has already had an effect.

"For example, throughout the Chilean sclerophyllous forest there are species that have been reduced in number and the bees have been left each time in a more precarious condition."

Chilean beekeeper Juan Sebastián Barros, who handles 3,000 hives pollinating blueberry and almond orchards,  disagrees.

"If you study the situation in different parts of  the world, there are more bees, not less, but what has happened is that they have changed continents. Before Europe and the U.S. had many and today these populations have declined, and in Asia and Latin America are growing. "


But while opinions differ over bee numbers, this doesn't detract from some of the very real risks South American bees face; the key one being the parasitic mite, varroa.

Pesticide balance

Pesticides are the most obvious way to combat the mite but the trick is getting the levels right, as Santibáñez explains.

"The agro-chemicals used to fight against these harmful insects harm the bees if they are used when the bees are not flying. They contaminate nectar and pollen taken and carried to the hive. We have not been careful enough, or had it as our prime concern, to design chemicals which are safe for bees."

Gómez agrees and believes the industry is between a rock and a hard place.

"Either we let this parasite kills bees or we fight it with miticides that eventually pollute and decimate populations in hives."

He explains that the chemicals are soluble dissolving in the wax and leaving residues in the hives.

"When the bees store pollen in the fat cells they also absorbs some acaricides. If the dose is small, nothing happens, but if the dose is slightly higher, it can be lethal to bees. "

The genetic diversity issue

Barros says it's difficult to pinpoint what poses the biggest threat to bees but believes lack of genetic diversity is also a problem.

"We have narrowed our gene pool so that the colonies are becoming more equal and therefore, if they don't have the ability to overcome a problem then we are going to lose many bees."

Then there is also the effect of genetically modified (GM) crops. Bees Peru commercial manager Andrés Llaxacondor, is worried about possible GM contamination from Argentina and Chile.

"The risk would be that honey which contains GM pollen would not agree with the nutritional system of bees and the hive would collapse. In the long run this would end up hurting the colony and it would disappear."

He adds that for exporters this would be a problem because Europe is not buying honey and pollen if they think its linked to GM crops.

Although, Santibáñez thinks GM technology could help bee-keepers.


"These minimally modified organisms could reduce pesticide loads, indirectly contributing to protect the bees," he says.

Gomez says the solution lies in better hives management including adequate winter feeding to make hives less susceptible to weather changes along with better control of varroa and use of quality waxes.

He believes major investment is need to secure the industry's future.

"The problem is very complex, the bee industry is a small one that does not generate a turnover sufficiently important for multinationals to invest in research  in more specific pesticide."

Across the Pacific Ocean another Southern Hemisphere fruit-growing area is facing its own threats. Make sure not to miss our Australia-New Zealand Bee Buzz on Wednesday.

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