The Buzz on Declining French Bee Populations

The luminous green leaves rustle gently as the wind glides through the Pyrénées, making the mountains of Sorede whisper peacefully. At a glance, it appears that nothing moves on the seemingly untouched mountainside except for the swaying trees, that nothing makes a sound except for the ever-present wind.

But 49-year-old Vincent Bellande knows better. The first thing he notices when he visits this mountain is the quiet buzzing of thousands of bees, darting in and out of a nondescript little wooden box perched precariously on the rocky ground.

But the life of a beekeeper is not all relaxed visits to sunny mountainside hives. In addition to the long hours and hard work involved in beekeeping, local beekeepers are fighting the decimation of the bee population.

According to Union Nationale d’Apiculture Française, 30 percent to 40 percent of the bees have been wiped out in France less than 10 years. Pollution and pesticides have decimated the bees around the world, and locals are noticing the effect.

“There is nothing we can do against pesticides, but we are all responsible for that,” said Bellande. “When you have a mosquito in your house, you kill it with a chemical. You are responsible too.”

Laure Michele, a technician at the Trade Union of Beekeeping in Roussillon, said that Bellande is not the only local beekeeper worried—they’re all concerned about the high mortality rate.

Michele said that in the past no one would admit that pesticides were killing the bees, but some blamed beekeepers for not taking proper care of their bees.

“Now we know there is something else, but it’s hard to pinpoint it,” Michele said. “They’ve found a cocktail of so many different pesticides now that it’s hard to pinpoint.”

According to Bellande, part of the reason that the cause is so hard to determine is that the use of certain pesticides varies from region to region.

For example, although the pesticide Cruiser OSR is causing a national uproar in the beekeeping community, Bellande says that it is not a local issue in the Languedoc-Roussillon region. Bees are instead dying due to a mixture of insecticides and herbicides used on fruit grown in the region.

But pesticides and herbicides are not the only problems for the bee population. Climate change has also played a part in the decimation of bee populations in southern France, as well as in the rest of the world.

Bellande said that because it is so much warmer now in the winter, bees are more active but don’t have enough food to survive. Between climate change and human pollution, bees are dying at an alarming rate.

The rising mortality rate is so alarming because bees are essential to human life. Scientist Albert Einstein famously said that “if the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.”

Thierry Diomine, a local vegetable farmer looking to expand his business, is worried about the dying bees as well because he needs them to pollinate.

“I think in China they have to pollinate the trees by hand because they don’t have bees anymore,” Diomine said. “I am very horrified.”

According to Michele and the Trade Union of Beekeeping, many beekeepers are turning to more natural methods in an effort to preserve their bees.

Bellande said that organic beekeeping is much better than industrial methods for raising strong, healthy bees.

“Industrial beekeeping is not a nice business,” he said. “They don’t care if the bees die as long as they get the honey.”

Bellande’s hives are all-natural, allowing the bees to live how they want. They can build their honeycomb in any direction, and he only removes the honey when the bees are ready.
“A natural habitat means strong bees,” he said.

Even farmers such as Diomine are moving toward organic farming in an effort to preserve the environment and the bees.

“I worked for 15 years in fish farming,” Diomine said. “I am really disgusted by the process of the industrial way of farming. We suspect a lot of chemicals everywhere and we want to produce in the best organic way we can.”

As bees continue to die in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, as well as in the rest of the world, beekeepers are searching for a way to stop the pollution and climate change before it decimates the bee populations completely.

Bellande says he tries to avoid using chemicals in his home. He even tries not to plug electronics into the walls because they emit harmful chemicals and radiation. But as he points out, “It is kind of impossible not to do it at all.”

Michele said cows in the region are vaccinated against disease-carrying mosquitoes, and that the vaccine is bad for the environment and, therefore, bad for the bees—even worse than the pesticides. Now farmers raising cows are trying different, organic treatments in hopes of protecting their cows and the local bee population.

Although Bellande does all that he can to save the environment,  he believes that people around the world need to collectively make an effort, cutting back on luxuries to save the planet.

“Our way of life is taking us directly into war,” Bellande said. “The bees are only a little problem compared to all the other big problems that we’re creating with globalization. We’re digging our own grave.”


About the Program

Fifteen college students came from North America to Perpignan, France, in June 2011 to produce these videos and stories. To find out more, read a welcome letter from program director Rachele Kanigel, meet the program faculty and explore the 2010 website.