Q u e e n B

The honey bee is doing better. For years it was atop of the list of endangered species, but now the deaths among bee populations have stabilized. However, honey is still heavily polluted and wild (bumble)bees are still struggling. We aren’t there yet. Time for an update.


The world was shocked. It was revealed that between 2006 and 2010 there was a sharp decline in the bee population. Humans are largely dependent on the bee. Without these pollinators our food industry could collapse. Everyone was at alert.  

Bee deaths

This led to a cooperation within the COLOSS-network ‘Monitoring and Disease’. Their researchers collected annual information from beekeepers on bee deaths. Luckily there was a relatively low winter death rate of 14.3% measured in the Netherlands in 2013.


One of the major causes, agricultural pesticides such as neonicotinoids, their use was limited in 2015. Bee populations reacted positively immediately. As such the European Union completely banned the use of the pesticides.


Dutch Minister of Agriculture Carole Schouten (ChristenUnie) voted for the proposal because ‘These substances are harmful to wild bees, honeybees, and bumblebees, who are indispensable for the pollination of crops. These substances are therefore a threat to biodiversity’.


Good nutrition

Honey from healthy colonies shows a better antibacterial effect than honey from nutritionally deficient colonies. Bees can thrive in an urban environment with lots of biodiversity, while they can struggle in rural areas with monocultures. Wild flowers and herbs, a rich polyculture, this is what is best to keep the bee healthy.

At the start of 2018, the scientific magazine Nature featured the research Recommendations for improving the health of the honey bee, “prevent and limit the spread of disease by offering up biodiversity through a wide array of wild flowers and herbs. Nectar provides honey for long term storage; pollen provides proteins and increased resilience against disease, and improves the life expectancy of the honey bee”

In 2006 the bee mortality rate rose to 32 percent in Europe and to 42 percent in the United States

Beekeepers see about 7 percent of their colony die during winter. In 2006 that number rose to 32 percent in Europe and 42 percent in the United States. This meant an enormous loss for the food industry and a loss of billions of euros. Of the 100 types of crops which supply 90 percent of food globally, more than 70% is pollinated by bees. 

These deaths are caused by Colony Collapse Disorder. Bee colony mortality rates, a disorder through which colonies seem to disappear in thin air. Beekeepers and researchers agree that it is being caused by parasites, pathogens, malnutrition, and pesticides. Because of neonicotinoids, insecticides which agriculture uses to protect crops, causes adult bees to grow smaller and produce less honey. Exposed colonies have problems with their queen and are less willing to swarm.

“Honeybees that are exposed to neonicotinoids die earlier.” Writes professor Amro Zayed of York University. Bee expert Dr. Edward Mitchell, from the Laboratory of Soil Biodiversity at the University of Neuchâtel confirms that “45% of our honey samples showed high levels of pesticide pollution. The cocktails of neonicotinoids also have a dramatic effect of bee brains. 

Luckily the European ban on agricultural pesticides is having an effect. Bee colonies are growing, even though many honey types are heavily polluted. The honey bee is only one of about 20.000 species of bees, with the Netherlands housing about 350.

More and more opponents of pesticides are battling for self-medication

Some researchers think that the bee mortality rate is mostly caused by the varroa destructor and the way beekeepers combat this. A German study showed correlations between the varroa destructor and bee keeping practices. In the previous years bee keepers saw a lower mortality rate if they combatted the parasite in the summer as well as the winter. More and more opponents of pesticides are arguing for self-medication. “bees are amazing pharmacists in their use of plants with antibiotic properties” states a recent study by the University of Udine and Pennsylvania State. 

The amount of so-called wild pollinators shrunk by over 80 percent in the period 1989-2014. Just like the honey bee they too suffer from less flowering plants, use of pesticides, larger scale agriculture, and the varroa destructor. That last one caused the extinction of wild honeybees in Europe and North America and threatens other wild bees. Of the 338 species in the Netherlands, 188 (56 percent) are on the red list. Luckily, they suffer less from habitat degradation. According to 2011 research at the Wageningen University, conditions in and around cities are better than outside of the city.

Each year we sow hundreds of hectares with 44 varieties of wild flowers

Wouter Bauman, a rooftop farmer from Rotterdam, agrees. “Bees thrive in the city. There is a large diversity of plants and there are no pesticides. Bees who migrate to the city come to life. Leave plots of land bare and soon you’ll have wild flowers which bees love. According to the bees there is no such thing as weeds.”

Biodynamic beekeeper from Midden-Delfland Deborah Post agrees. “We shouldn’t tinker with the bee, just offer them enough food. With Honey Highway, each year we sow hundreds of hectares of soil with 44 types of perennial wild flowers. As such bees get a wide nutritional offering that they flourish and can produce resistance against diseases.”

Honey Highway lobbies entrepreneurs, farmers, and project developers to take bees into account and to plant wild flowers on unused soil. “we want to involve all Dutch schoolchildren in the annual sowing of the verges of highways, waterways, and railways. A healthy society needs healthy bees.”


Broiler Bee

Ferry Schutzelaars, beekeeper and board member of the Smart Beeing foundation, calls attention to another phenomenon: the broiler bee.

“The general way of beekeeping also forms a threat for the vitality of the honey bee. This is aimed at honey production, in which you take away honey and replace it with sugar water.  

Secondly a beekeeper holds back the natural reproduction of a colony (the swarming), because this lowers the honey production or claims too much attention. Because building a hive cuts into profits, they are provided with an artificial one. 

Just like with livestock, they’re breeding for productivity

Just like with livestock they are bred for productivity, bees are selected in such a way that they create large colonies with as little need to spread out as possible. As such the broiler bee. No wonder that they are incapable of fending off illness and need constant care to be kept alive. On a positive note, beekeepers are finding innovative ways to restore bee health. They are focusing on vitality and natural development of the bee, and as such more and more colonies are living free of the varroa destructor.”

Through Global initiatives bees are getting better again. A lot of these initiatives however are small and local. We need to convince governments, interest holders, farmers and producers to increase the scale and success. Because the fate of the bee is interwoven with that of us.

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