Beekeepers in Western Europe fear for their future

Beekeepers in Western Europe fear for their future

Thirty-two-year-old Moritz Seidler has around 20 beehives in Berlin. As an amateur beekeeper, he is determined not to sell his honey on the cheap, out of respect for the profession.

(Antolín Avezuela)

In front of the Api Douceur honey shop in Giromagny, France, stands an unusual glazed container next to the path that leads to the beehives. It is a vending machine, installed by the apiary’s owners in 2019. “As there were only two of us, initially, we weren’t able to open the shop at regular times, so we came up with the idea of a vending machine, to enable passers-by, or even Sunday ramblers, to buy their jar of honey,” says 31-year-old Flavien Durant, who has been managing the company alongside Patrick Giraud since 2017. The vending machine helps them to expand their customer base and try to make a profit from an increasingly precarious trade.

Although Flavien and Patrick make an average of eight tonnes of honey a year, in 2021, the figure fell to 300 kilos. The majority of the 400 hives they had at the end of winter did not produce honey. Most beekeepers suffered the same fate. France’s 2021 honey harvest was forecast to be around 7,000 to 9,000 tonnes, according to the French National Beekeeping Union (UNAF). In 2020, it was around 19,000 tonnes.

Adverse weather conditions were to blame for such a poor harvest. The winter was particularly mild but was followed by periods of frost, cold and rain throughout spring and into the summer. June arrived and Flavien had not yet harvested a single kilo of honey. Worse still, he had to feed his bees, and they had already consumed all the honey reserves in their hive. “It’s a lost year, a rotten year like we’ve never seen before.”

The situation was such that Flavien decided to find an extra job. He is now working in the construction industry and hopes to go back to looking after his bees in the spring. “Being a manager, it’s easier for me to come and go from the apiary. And it allows me to keep on our two employees, who we really want to hold on to.”

The Territoire de Belfort department is currently looking into declaring a ‘beekeeping calamity’, which could open the way for state aid. For now, Flavien and his business partner have received €4,000 in aid from the local authority to offset the losses caused by the late frost. “For producers like us, who live on what we produce, when we don’t produce, the solution is to live off our reserves. But when you’ve just started out, they are very limited,” says Flavien. They only had enough reserves to last until December.

The prelude to an environmental disaster

It is not only in France that beekeepers are struggling but all across Europe, reflecting a wider trend. Honey production and the survival of bees have been steadily declining over recent decades. The honeybee mortality rate is currently around 30 per cent. In 1995, it was five per cent, according to UNAF. And yet, bees contribute around €22 billion to the European agricultural sector each year – not thanks to the honey they produce, but to the pollination services they provide for crops. Scientists estimate that one in every three bites of food relies on pollinators.

Climate disruption is not solely responsible for this decline. The pesticides used on a massive scale since the 1990s have also played their part. Numerous studies have shown the toxicity of these substances, such as the one conducted by the University of Maryland in 2016, which also highlights the dangers of the cocktail effect of pesticides.

Sébastien Guillier is more than familiar with the issue. In 2008, he lost the bulk of his colonies, probably due to poisoning. He had been working as a professional beekeeper for ten years in Haute-Saône in north-eastern France. “In the autumn of 2007, the bees were thirsty. Treatments had been applied in the area to combat red spider mites on wheat, and the bees drank from the puddles, as they often do. The dose must have been too high,” explains the beekeeper.

There is one particular category of insecticides that was shown to be dangerous to bees very early on: neonicotinoids. In 2018, the EU banned the use of three of them. Today, however, as with other banned substances, farmers can take advantage of emergency authorisations to use these products on certain crops.

EU member states can grant emergency authorisations for up to 120 days where there is “a danger which cannot be controlled by any other reasonable means”, according to the EU directive governing these emergency measures. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has identified 17 emergency measures since 2020, all for sugar beet. Between 2018 and 2020, however, the Greenpeace journalism project Unearthed recorded at least 67 emergency authorisations in the various EU member states.

Following his loss in 2008, Sébastien sought to raise the issue in the French parliament and media. To little avail. He received €45 per hive in state compensation, although the amount needed to rebuild the colony was around €150 per hive. He too had to find a second job. He now works as a milk inspector and keeps around 100 hives in the countryside of Haute-Saône.

In France, only three per cent of the country’s 70,000 beekeepers were professional in 2019. The rest were amateur (92 per cent) or pluri-active (5 per cent). And although the number of beekeepers is increasing almost everywhere in Europe, the pattern remains the same as in France: they are mainly amateur. European beekeepers have an average of 21 hives.

Unsustainable competition

Another stress factor for beekeepers is the cheap competition from abroad. Supermarket prices are far too low for local beekeepers to make a living, especially for those who produce on a small scale.

Some of the producers keeping prices very low are based in Eastern European countries, such as Ukraine, but many are also in China. One kilogramme of imported Chinese honey cost retailers €1.40, on average, in 2020. Most beekeepers in the European Union cannot compete with such prices. Their average production cost is already €3.90 per kilogramme, according to Copa-Cogeca, which represents farmers and agri-cooperatives in the EU. Around 40 per cent of the honey on the European market is imported.

“I decided not to try to compete with these low prices but, rather, to sell my honey at a more sustainable price,” explains Berlin beekeeper Moritz Seidler. He refuses to sell his honey for anything under €14 a kilo to companies and around €20 a kilo to individuals.

For him, it is about setting an example. “I don’t live off my honey sales, but I don’t want to lower my prices, out of respect for professional beekeepers,” he says, as he gently lifts the lid of a hive in a corner of his small garden on the outskirts of the city. The conditions here are ideal for his bees: they can enjoy melliferous plants all year round and are exposed to very little pesticide. The 32-year-old beekeeper has 20 hives and he managed to harvest around 750 kilos of honey in 2021.

As in France, most German beekeepers have less than 50 hives and are not reliant on the income they earn from beekeeping. The problem, according to Moritz, is the lack of recognition for the profession: “Beekeepers are only paid for the honey, not for the real service that bees provide by foraging plants, save in a few exceptional cases where agreements are made with farmers.” For him, honey should be appreciated for the service it provides in terms of biodiversity, not just for its sweet taste.

He does, however, acknowledge that there are signs of hope. “When I started out, I was by far the youngest person in our beekeepers’ association. The youngest after me must have been about 50 years old. I was 13 years old at the time.” Things have changed since then. More and more people are showing an interest in bees, as demonstrated by the ever-growing number of hobbyist beekeepers.

Innovating to save the profession

In Galicia, northern Spain, beekeepers are faced with similar concerns. Like Moritz, Félix Javier González relies on the high quality of his honey and sustainable practices to beat the competition. A trained biologist, Félix Javier was struggling to find a stable contract to continue with his laboratory research on invertebrates. One day, a friend invited him to visit his beehives. “I loved it and saw the potential in it for using my skills.”

His in-depth knowledge of insects has contributed to his success. Since he bought his first hives, in 2015, he has learned the best way to care for them, and to produce quality honey. His bees stay in one place all year round, mostly in the mountains, surrounded by wildflowers. His honey meets organic standards. “I wanted to be sure that the honey was pesticide-free. But it is also, of course, a sales strategy. I target customers who eat organic and want good quality,” he explains.

Marketing also plays a role. To reflect the purity of his honey, he named it Salvaxe, ‘wild’ in Galician, the language spoken in the region where he produces his honey. “We don’t interfere much with the hives. We don’t stimulate them and rarely use any kind of treatment. We just place the hives and watch over them. It’s almost like wild honey,” says Félix Javier.

He also relies on innovation. His catalogue is primarily made up of traditional honeys, but he is constantly testing new products to attract new customers. His honey-chocolate mixture – a healthier alternative to traditional chocolate spread – is the most successful. “I can’t complain, I sell everything I produce. And I could produce more,” he admits. This young beekeeper has 300 hives and he produces an average of four tonnes of honey a year.

But it has not always been an easy road. For the first three years, his costs were higher than his income. And now, although beekeeping is a more stable option than scientific research, it is not a panacea. “It’s not really profitable, but it can be sustainable,” he says. His honey sells for between €10 and €12 per kilo.

Like his colleagues across the continent, his biggest enemy is the unpredictable weather. But he also fears the growing number of hobbyist beekeepers, who can afford to sell below market prices.

Finally, climate change is forcing professional beekeepers that practice transhumance, often from southern Spain, to move northwards. That creates competition for Félix Javier’s bees. Nomadic beekeeping is widespread in Europe, especially in the south, as it allows honeybees to feed themselves as much as possible by giving them access to resources from spring to autumn. It is not the most comfortable way of life for them, however, as they suffer from stress during travel. But for many professionals, it is the only way of ensuring their bees have enough to eat.

This article has been translated from French by Louise Durkin