It was with great satisfaction to hear that the European Commission approved the apiculture national programmes of the EU’s 27 member states. These programmes are meant to improve the production and marketing of honey and apiculture products for the period 2011-2013. The EU’s contribution to the financing of these programmes has in fact increased when compared to the previous period (2008-2010), from €26 million to €32 million per year.

Although only part of this funding will go directly into research, this is a positive measure because the EU has recognised the vital role of honey bees not just for the production of honey, beeswax and other products, but also their role in pollination. It is estimated that over a third of the food we eat depends on pollination and with the ever-increasing world population we shall increasingly rely on the pollination services provided by bees. The EU-funded ALARM project has estimated that insect pollination contributes over €150 billion per year to the global economy through agriculture. A reduction in pollination will mean that foreign fruit and vegetables will have to be imported at a higher cost.

The Maltese islands’ 2,722 registered honey bee colonies are the lowest in Europe and represent only 0.019 per cent of the bees in the European Union. Spain has by far the biggest number of colonies at almost 2.5 million or 18 per cent of Europe’s total. This is followed by Greece with 1.5 million colonies (11 per cent).

Since 2006, large-scale losses of bee colonies in the US and various parts of Europe and Asia have served to highlight the 20,000 species of bees’ essential role in our ecosystems as key pollinators of wild plants and crops. This has also served as an eye-opener on how little we know about diseases that affect these insects and how changes to global farming practices can affect the fragile balance not only of pollinators but of whole ecosystems. In the US the problem has been most acute with, for the fourth year in a row, over a third of bee colonies failing to survive the winter. South America, Africa and Australia have not been affected.

The exact reason for these losses (termed as colony collapse disorder) is still unknown, however, the attributable causes vary from viral and bacterial infections, irresponsible use of pesticides and destruction of bee foraging areas from over-development to loss of floral abundance and diversity due to intensive farming methods.

Malta and Gozo seem not to have yet experienced these major unexplained losses. However, some of the greatest local losses come from parasites, such as the Varroa mite which was identified in Malta in August 1992 after having been accidentally introduced through the importation of foreign bees. Varroa killed two-thirds of the bee colonies in Malta and it has now established itself in practically every colony in Malta and Gozo. It weakens the bees, spreads viruses, reduces their immune systems and makes them vulnerable.

The importation of foreign species of bees did not help. In 1997, an endemic sub-species of Maltese honey bee, Apis mellifera ruttneri, was identified. This native Maltese honey bee was found to be very intensive in cleaning itself and the colony from foreign intruders, such as Varroa. The introduction of non-native species has exposed the Maltese honey bee to introgressive hybridisation – leading to loss of valuable traits shaped by natural selection over the years. This presents a clear threat to the conservation of this unique honey bee.

Another recent threat which we might soon face will come from the Asian hornet. These hornets group themselves in front of a beehive, decapitating the bees and stripping off their wings and legs, to make off with the mashed bee’s thorax and abdomen to feed their young. It is thought the hornet first arrived accidentally in France in 2004 in plant pots imported to Bordeaux from China. Within a few years, beekeepers in the area were suffering up to 70 per cent colony losses and are still struggling to control the problem.

Agriculture is nowadays in­creasingly relying on mixtures of pesticides to protect fruit and vegetables from pests but based on risk assessments at EU level, “acceptable use” of neonicotinoid pesticides is possible and “a ban would not be justified” (reply of Commissioner John Dalli on behalf of the European Commission, April 27, 2010). These pesticides include those having the active ingredient imidacloprid which is allowed locally to kill off virus-carrying aphids affecting citrus trees. However, it similarly affects the nervous system of beneficial insects such as honey bees which actively pollinate citrus trees during the blooming period. The influence of pesticides on bee mortality is particularly seen in cases where products are misused or applied incorrectly.

Pesticides are also used to protect honey bees from mites but this has been counterproductive in some countries as the mites themselves became resistant to these chemicals.

To derail these trends we need action. Action from governments to ban pesticides which are toxic to pollinators and to sustain more organic styles of farming that phase farmers off pesticides. Farmers should be prevented from applying pesticides when crops and fruit trees are in bloom. It would be beneficial to continue past EU-aid programmes aimed at providing healthy year-round foraging areas for bees by protecting habitats rich in wildflowers and aiding land owners to maintain them. The endemic Maltese honey bee should be studied further and protected in areas where it is identified. Local councils should take a leading role by setting up bee-friendly gardens where nectar-producing flowering plants are available.

There is much to learn about this small insect, but one thing is certain – the decline of the honey bees is not a myth.

The author is interested in honey bee research and conservation.