Of bees and men

The bee is our environmental sentinel. If she dies, so do we. Pollution, ravages of insecticides, decline in biodiversity: if we want to save the world of hives, and ours with it, we must quickly change our model.

Since the media coverage of the phenomenon of excess bee mortality in the 1990s, which even suggested an unexpected essay by Philippe de Villiers on the subject, bees and beekeepers have become very popular. Especially since we attribute to Albert Einstein the aphorism according to which “if the bee were to disappear, man would only have a few years to live”. Absolute and not relative reason, therefore, to take an interest in an animal that has become our environmental sentinel.

This popularity justified that the magazine Rural studies devotes a dossier made up of seven articles reviewing the legal, technical, ecological and social aspects of this activity unlike any other, with detours to China and Morocco.

A particular form of agriculture?

Beekeeping is a difficult activity to classify. Is it even part of agriculture? Certainly, the legislator had already asked this question for livestock in general, agriculture being stricto sensu and etymologically the cultivation of a field (ager). But, even compared to extensive breeding, the activity to which it is closest, beekeeping is distinguished by a much looser relationship with animals, since it is a priori excluded from directing bees as one directs a flock of sheep.

“Landless” agriculture almost by nature, beekeeping slips into the interstices of the productions which structure the territory (field crops, arboriculture, viticulture, livestock) and with which it coexists, sharing the same spaces, provided that the beekeeper. rice can find small suitable places to place its hives.

Furthermore, historically, the world of beekeeping has been characterized – and dominated? – by a very large majority of members who do not make beekeeping their main source of income. The proportion of “professionals” is therefore very small. Therefore, beekeeping has long been poorly integrated into agricultural management systems. Thus, both on the ground and in institutional plans, beekeeping has remained on the margins of agricultural activity.

An interstitial activity

The lack of land ownership leads beekeepers to negotiate their presence with the owners. However, if the role of bees as pollinating insects is known and makes them welcome, the insect stings, as almost all of us have experienced, which can make cohabitation difficult.

Furthermore, the bee itself has its requirements, particularly in terms of exposure and protection from the wind, which does not allow it to be placed just anywhere. Furthermore, for a professional beekeeper with several dozen, or even several hundred, hives, it is out of the question to concentrate his hives in one place – there would be no foraging for everyone! This leads to a reticular organization of beekeeping, in both geographical and social terms, since the beekeeper must maintain a social network of owners accepting his presence.

This network is not limited to a small territory. In order to increase his production, but also to diversify it, the beekeeper does not hesitate to move his hives to follow successive flowerings, practicing transhumance which can be carried out over several thousand kilometers, as in China where most beekeepers must lead a nomadic life.

Problems related to the industrialization of agriculture

As beekeeping is dependent on other activities, particularly agricultural, it is inevitable that it will feel the effects of their evolution. The reduction in production, even going as far as monoculture, the enlargement of plots and the elimination of neglected ones, associated with an increasingly massive use of pesticides, have disrupted beekeeping. Monoculture over large areas concentrates flowering and therefore food availability over a very short period. Pesticides contribute to weakening swarms and causing excess mortality and a drop in production.

This has led to strained relations with farmers. Among the emblematic files, neonicotinoids, a family of insecticides attacking the nervous system of insects and used in particular in seed coating. The management of the file by public authorities is a model of its kind, articulating three stages: denial of the problem (what relationship between insect health and insecticides?), disqualification of field observations made by beekeepers and diversion into quibbling over the analysis of the phenomenon, multifactoriality prohibiting conclusions (according to the well-known pattern of merchants of doubt).

Latest avatar to date, after the ban on the incriminated products, after twenty years of delaying processes, their re-authorization in the case of beets. This opens the door to other exceptions, France being one of the countries where the rules are made to be applied only selectively.

The reader will console himself – perhaps? – when reading the article on Chinese beekeepers. At the bottom of the social scale, the latter are led to exploit their insects excessively, by harvesting unripe “honey” every three days, closer to syrup than honey and having lost, in addition to most of its nutritional qualities. , its conservation capacity. Conclusion: “The working conditions of transhumant beekeepers highlight the abuses imposed by the ultraliberal commercial rules which now govern Chinese economic life.”

Pollination and urban beekeeping

Faced with this situation, two phenomena have developed: pollination and urban agriculture.

Pollination is payment to the beekeeper for the pollinating role of his hives. The phenomenon appeared in the United States in the 1950s and took on increasing importance, leading to transhumance of hives across the country.

Indeed, the specialization of territories has resulted in very short flowering periods, a situation that is not conducive to maintaining populations of wild or domestic pollinators. When the flowers appear, the sedentary population of pollinators is too small, hence the idea of ​​requiring the services of nomadic hives, which will come and gather before leaving elsewhere. The market is estimated at over three hundred million dollars, and honey sometimes appears as an economic by-product of pollination activity.

Fleeing this countryside, bees and beekeepers paradoxically find conditions favorable to their development in cities, particularly because of the abundance of ornamental trees and flower gardens. Beekeeping also benefits from a very favorable image and reception. Even if, for beekeepers, operating conditions prove complicated, these difficulties are offset by the price at which it is possible to sell the honey.

The service is also lucrative. Because it is now fashionable to have a hive on the roof of your head office and to hire the services of a beekeeper. And too bad if these are “communication operations without major effects on biodiversity. (…) We’re ruining the planet, but on the other hand we have three hives, it’s nice” (p. 83).

The bee paradox

Behind the symbol eco-friendly, there is a paradox. For the sake of productivity, beekeepers tend to favor the most productive species. As with the “Holsteinized” dairy herd (with a virtual monopoly of the black piebald Holstein breed on drinking milk), the biodiversity of domestic bees tends to decrease.

Furthermore, the multiplication of domestic swarms subjects wild species of foragers, which share the same ecological layer, starting with wild bees, to tough competition. If we want to save all these little people, and ours with it, we will have to seriously think about changing our model.