Bees and plants have a pact: The insects may help themselves to as much sweet nectar as they like. In return, they distribute pollen for their blooming providers. Along with flies, butterflies and beetles, bees thereby help secure much of our basic food supply – the hard-working insects even increase both the quality and the yield of fruits, vegetables and oilseeds in most parts of the world. In Canada, for example, bees help with canola production. Thanks to their pollination services, more pods with larger seeds are able to develop in certain canola varieties. InVigor™ hybrid canola breeding from Bayer depends entirely on the help of these little creatures. In return, the yellow blossoms provide the bees with sufficient nutrition for a whole month.
But Canada’s canola fields are just one example. In many parts of Europe, such as in Italy’s South Tyrol region, bees help to pollinate vast apple orchards that bloom in the spring. These orchards are constantly abuzz because the region’s beekeepers set up their bee hives nearby. The farmers rejoice: “We want to produce high-quality fruit. To do that, we need wild insects and also honey bees,” explains Klaus Weissenegger, manager of a fruit-growing company in Bozen. “So we make sure that the production methods we use are as gentle on beneficial insects as possible.” The insects respond and enable the farmers of South Tyrol to produce about ten percent of the entire apple harvest in the European Union. The beekeepers, in turn, profit from the honey they harvest from the well-nourished bee colonies. Even in Australia, farmers depend on help from bees: Sixty-five percent of agricultural production there depends on their pollination services. The farmers down under also rely on commercial pollination using stingless bees, for the production of crops like macadamia nuts, mangos and lychees.
Focus on Bees
“Efficient agriculture requires both healthy bees and modern plant protection,” says Dr Christian Maus, Global Pollinator Safety Manager at the Bayer Bee Care Center in Monheim. Bayer employees, therefore, work constantly to make the little helpers’ lives easier. The researchers are currently working on methods to fight one of the honey bee’s greatest enemies, the Varroa mite. During the past few decades, it has spread from Asia throughout almost the entire world. Like a tick, this parasite sucks on the bees, while also transmitting deadly diseases. “Varroa can wipe out entire bee colonies,” explains Maus.
Many Influencing Factors
Although the global number of managed honey bee colonies has, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), increased by some 45 percent over the last 50 years, “there was a downward trend being observed on the regional level, especially in some European countries and in North America,” says bee safety expert Maus. There are many different reasons for this, in the first place socio-economic aspects, but also diseases, adverse weather conditions and food shortages. In the U.S., for instance, one especially intensive agricultural practice, the pollination of almond trees, also makes the bees’ lives more difficult. It is a very lucrative business in the state of California, where 80 percent of the world’s almond crop is produced. The orchards are so large that wild insects and individual honey bee colonies are not sufficient to pollinate all of the trees. Instead, bee colonies are brought to the orchards: More than half of all American bee colonies are driven to California on thousands of trucks every year. Their transportation is extremely stressful and diseases can spread rapidly throughout the enormous quantities of colonies.
Efficient agriculture requires both healthy bees and modern plant protection.
Bees are Frequent Fliers
Crop and Bee Protection
Crop protection products have been regularly accused of harming the useful pollinators. “But crop protection is essential for feeding the world’s population,” says Maus. “so we have to make sure that protecting the plants doesn’t occur at the expense of beneficial insects.” Before a crop protection product is approved, its influence on bees and other beneficial insects is carefully and thoroughly investigated in various studies from the laboratory to the field. Only products are permitted that do not harm bee colonies under good agricultural practice. Moreover, the use of some products is not allowed when a crop is blooming. As long as the products are applied correctly, this ensures maximum safety for the bees. Despite this good work, there is repeated criticism of agriculture, and in particular of neonicotinoids, certain insecticides that are applied for instance to corn, oilseeds, soy or wheat seeds before planting. “There have been occasional cases in which bee colonies have been harmed by incorrect application of crop protection products,” explains Maus, “but as many scientific studies, long-term field monitoring data and risk assessments have shown, neonicotinoids do not cause harm to bee colonies under real-life field conditions, when they are used responsibly and properly, and according to label instructions.” Nevertheless, the uses of some neonicotinoids have been restricted in the European Union. It is a harsh blow to farmers, who now have few alternatives to protect their fields from hungry pests.
Factors Affecting Bee Health
Less Dust, More Bees
In order to further optimize the bee safety of insecticides, Bayer researchers therefore focus on finding new and better stewardship measures including different ways to apply a product. In the ‘Zero’ Dust project, for example, researchers and developers are analyzing the entire application process of seed-applied products: “We want to optimize the composition of seed treatment formulations and film-coatings, so that we can further improve how reliably they stick to the seeds,” explains Björn Schwenninger, who is leading the project for Bayer. “If they are not binding properly, it cannot be completely avoided that parts of the products can rub off, and the resulting dust can then enter the environment,” continues Schwenninger. Application, storage, transport and planting are also being reviewed within the scope of the project.
Looking ahead, Bayer will continue to practice sound product development and stewardship that recognizes and respects the important role honey bees and other pollinators play in gardens, crop fields and on the planet. For agriculture depends on honey bees and their fellow pollinators – and they, in turn, depend on the combined help from both the farmers and the beekeepers.
Dialogue and Cooperation
The Bayer Bee Care Centers in Monheim, Germany, and North Carolina, USA, focus specifically on health and protection of pollinators, especially honey bees.
The centers unite the expertise and experience across Bayer, enabling partnering with research institutes and universities, beekeepers and industry partners around the world on research projects and cooperations. Beyond the scientific objectives, the centers also serve as a communication and education platform for continuing stakeholder dialogue, collaboration and understanding of bee health, bringing together apiarists, farmers and scientists – in short, all those who care about healthy bees.