Will the Honeybee Survive?


“In the lion’s skeleton he [Samson] found a swarm of bees, and honey. He scooped it into his palms and ate it as he went along…. Out of the eater came something to eat, Out of the strong came something sweet” (Judges 14:8-14). Neither Samson’s bees nor any other subspecies of bees are found in the wild in Israel these days and if international trends continue, they might not be found at farms soon either. Israeli beekeepers discuss the past, present, and future of bees and honey in the land of milk and honey and urge the public to follow the US’s lead in taking the threat to bees seriously.

by ERETZ Staff

In the wild and in agriculture, bees’ importance does not stem from their honey, but from pollination. Many crops would have a much lower yield if bees did not pollinate them, while others would not meet quality standards. The flowers of some plants, such as avocados and pears, must be cross-pollinated with pollen from another plant to produce fruit. Though other insects also fly from flower to flower, they do not focus on a single type of flower. They go wherever they want at the moment, flitting from a eucalyptus flower to an avocado flower in a single flight. Honeybees, in contrast, display flower constancy, sticking to the same type of plant, though not necessarily to the same variety of that plant. Since they are social creatures, they know how to direct other bees to flowers that are a good source of pollen or nectar. Honeybees feed solely on the pollen and nectar of flowers; nectar provides energy, while pollen provides protein. The pollination industry is based on the fact that bees behave this way.
Zohar Rudolf, 43, directs the apiary at Kibbutz Dan. He grew up at Kibbutz Amir and his interest in bees brought him to Dan. The apiary has been there since the kibbutz’s early days in the 1930s since several of the kibbutz’s founding members were knowledgeable about beekeeping. During the 1930s and 1940s, the main years that the Upper Galilee was being settled, most new kibbutzim set up small apiaries to produce honey and pollinate their orchards. At Dan, hives would be moved from place to place on small wagons pulled by donkeys and later in old Ford trucks. During the struggle to establish the State of Israel, beekeepers would smuggle weapons by hiding them under beehives. The British policemen stationed at the checkpoint at Rosh Pina did not really want to get close to the beekeepers’ wagons, let alone inspect them.
“Ami Mamis turned Dan’s apiary into a serious business,” Rudolf says. “When he came to Dan, he brought along his father’s apiary, which had about 40 hives. He had the vision and the desire to establish a serious, professional apiary.”
Israel’s honey production industry was in crisis in the 1970s. Large quantities of honey reached the market, but the demand for it was low. Tnuva, which was the main outlet for selling honey to the public, paid farmers so little for honey that it was not financially worthwhile to maintain beehives, since that was the only source of income from them at the time. Kibbutzim began to close their apiaries. Mamis decided to do the opposite and bought beehives from those that were shutting. In the process, he also acquired the right to set up beehives in the fields and orchards of those kibbutzim.
“Mamis’s main goal was not to establish an apiary to produce honey, but to pollinate orchards and field crops. This activity, he claimed, is so vital to agriculture that it would justify the expenses of the hives. The honey is just a byproduct,” Rudolf says.
Mamis brought Rudolf to the apiary, where he joined a small professional staff consisting of Yossi Yermiyahu, who was the manager at the time, and two young kibbutz members, Ido Yermiyahu and Nimrod Lev Ari, who continue to form the apiary’s professional base to this day.
“A honey apiary and a pollination apiary appear the same, but their financial approach is completely different,” Rudolf explains. “The pollination apiary produces much less honey for the simple reason that most of its pollination work, in the case of the Dan apiary, is pollinating deciduous plants in a mountain region. These plants need cold, blossom in winter, and are planted in high, cold regions. These areas warm up later in the year and so the nectar-rich blossoming occurs later in the year. So while the citrus in the valleys, the Shephelah, and the Negev are blossoming and perfuming the air, the pollination hives of Kibbutz Dan are located high up on the cold mountain. The bees from the pollination apiary make their way down to the valley at the foot of the mountains, collect pollen from the flowers blossoming there, and when they return to the hive on the mountain slope, eat honey to provide themselves with energy to pollinate the orchards on the mountain.”
Over the years, Rudolf and his colleagues have developed techniques for placing hives in an orchard at the optimal time.
“The honeybee has all sorts of preferences regarding nectar sources,” Rudolf says. “For example, there are wild plants that the bee prefers to trees in an orchard.
“The bee also has learned how to reach the nectar of some types of flowers without touching the pollen, which is not exactly desirable when the goal is pollination. In certain varieties of apples, for example, the petals are not very close to each other and the bee learned how to reach the nectar without touching the petals. This is a defect in the plant that is a result of crossbreeding and the development of new varieties of apples. Varieties with ‘desirable’ traits are bred, but the ‘price’ of this is a ‘defect’ in the flower that allows the bee to avoid the stamen. Beekeepers also have learned how to deal with this by placing hives in the grove gradually. For the first two days, the bees have not yet learned how to avoid the petals. When hives are placed in an orchard, the bees begin by flying in circles around their hive and the circles gradually get bigger and bigger. Then the hive is moved to another part of the orchard and the bees will do what they did the previous day again: begin by making small circles around their hive, identify the blossoming apple trees, return to the hive, and perform a dance in which they inform other bees where the nectar is. Meanwhile, they have not yet learned that they can avoid the petals. By the time that the bees learn to do this, new hives will be introduced to the field whose bees will learn from the earlier hives where the nectar is, but will not learn how to avoid the petals from them.”
Apple trees blossom for a very short time: a day or two at most. They are pollinated by putting hives into an orchard gradually so that bees will reach all the trees. In apple orchards, the timing of those who provide pollination services is crucial.
“A farmer can report to us that blossoming will begin in another three days,” Rudolf says. “Four hours later, he can suddenly phone us again to say he just went down to the orchard and blossoming actually already has begun. As a provider of pollination services, I must be able to arrive at his orchard immediately, without almost any advance notice. That can mean I need to go out into the field at 10 p.m., collect 150 hives, check that all of them meet the requirements to provide pollination services, and place them in the field that same day – or night. Rain, snow, and waterlogged mud do not change the fact that the hives need to reach the orchard. This requires special equipment – large trucks with special cranes to move the hives – that can reach anywhere.”
In order to provide pollination services, the Dan apiary maintains thousands of hives and is constantly prepared to go out into the field or orchard.
“For the past few years, I have accepted almost no new farmers to the pollination service,” he says. “The same is true of most of the professional pollination apiaries. The demand for pollination is constantly growing and we are unable to meet it. A pollination apiary must serve a regular group of clients, otherwise it is not able to provide appropriate services. This is not a trivial matter. Arriving at an orchard late, even if it is only by a few hours, can mean the loss of an indescribable amount of produce. An entire year of work can be lost simply because a pollinator did not arrive on time or know how to work in a professional manner.”
Most pollination occurs in spring, but some happens in winter and summer. Almonds, which only honeybees pollinate, blossom at the peak of winter in January and February. Pollinating almonds is very complex: in addition to mishaps related to the weather, rain, mud, and so on, pollination in such cold, wintry weather goes against bees’ nature. Large, strong swarms must be maintained in a season when the hive is not at its best and is not at the peak of activity. However, almonds only have the honeybee; other insects do not venture out in the winter cold, preferring to wait until spring. Only bees from strong, well-maintained hives are prepared to work almond orchards – provided suitable conditions are created for them.
Though the apiary at Kibbutz Dan focuses on pollination, its 3,700 hives produce some 120 tons of honey annually.
“Most of our activities,” Rudolf concludes, “revolve around pollination. Despite that, most of our income comes from honey.”

Looming Danger of Extinction

As noted above, last June, Obama issued his presidential memorandum, “Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.” Israeli authorities have yet to take a similar step.
“In Israel there is not sufficient awareness of the extent of the risk and the enormity of the disaster,” Slavsky says. “The world of pollinators in general and of bees in particular currently is coping with a complex of problems that is growing increasingly severe and which can be summarized as three main issues: the Varoaa destructor, which is causing the collapse of hives; pesticides which also are deadly for bees; and the decline of nectar-rich plants, which is resulting in the starvation of bees.”
The problems are not limited to that, he notes.
“There recently has been an inexplicable collapse of bees in southern Israel,” Slavsky says. “There suddenly are piles of dead bees around the hives there for no discernible reason. It is not the Varoaa destructor and it is not pesticides. Perhaps it is air pollution or perhaps it is something new.”
Conditions are changing and bees perhaps offer a clear sign that humanity must wake up to changes in the world whose many results can not be predicted accurately yet.
In any case, the main problem, Slavsky emphasizes repeatedly, is the Varoaa destructor, a parasitic mite that preys on bee larvae. They invade the cells of the honeycomb in which the larvae develop just before these cells are sealed and pupation occurs. Thus an entire new generation of Varoaa destructors develops, hidden inside sealed cells, instead of bee larvae. The mites emerge from the cells when they are mature, having been cared for and nurtured by the labor of adult worker bees. This allows the mites to multiply and spread throughout a hive – and an entire region – quite rapidly. In addition, the Varoaa destructor carries viruses that harm and weaken bees, leaving them more vulnerable to diseases and other problems. When Varoaa destructors spread through a hive, viruses and diseases follow and phenomenon appear such as bees with atrophied wings, impairments in the young, and a shorter lifespan.
The Varoaa destructor originated in southeast Asia, mainly Indonesia, where it lived on a species of honeybees. When the mites reached a critical mass in a hive, the bees would abandon the old hive, along with a large population of mites, and establish a new hive. These bees learned how to cope with the problem of the mites infecting the hive by abandoning it and starting a new hive. However, such behavior is not conducive to honey production or pollination on a commercial level, which both depend on bees remaining in a hive.
When queen bees began to be exported from Asia to Europe, the Varoaa destructor arrived with them. Pesticides have not been particularly effective against it. As mentioned above, it already has become immune to two of the three pesticides used to fight it. Furthermore, pesticide only can be used during the limited period in winter and summer when there are no stores of honey in a hive. Plus Slavsky adds that since “the mite hides in the hive, sealed into the pupa’s cells, it is difficult to reach.”
In 2004, reports began to appear of inexplicable collapses of hives in the US, Canada, India, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Taiwan. Two years later, this phenomenon became an international epidemic. The term Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) was applied to situations in which all of the sudden, with no warning such as piles of dead bees at the entrances to hives, entire communities of bees collapse. The population of bees in a hive shrinks and is unable to care for the young and while there still is a queen in the hive, most of the other bees are young. In some cases, the queen remains alone with 10 to 15 worker bees, hidden in a remote corner of the hive.
There always has been a certain degree of attrition in the number of hives and that generally was manageable. The attrition and collapse of hives had different causes, such as diseases, pests, pesticides, and mainly mistakes by the beekeeper.
“In the past, we knew how to make up for the attrition and to return to a reasonable number of active hives,” Slavsky says.
In the US, it was found that hives collapsed due to the development of a viral disease that was not particularly widespread. The media exaggerated this a great deal. However, the collapse of hives in the US raised the prices of pollination, which in turn raised food prices. California is the world’s largest almond grower and almonds constitute one of California’s main sources of income in the agricultural sector. Since only the honeybee pollinates the almond tree, the rise in pollination prices led almond prices to rise worldwide. Moreover, the need to import hundreds of thousands of hives to California in the wake of the collapse of about one third of the pollination hives required transporting hives from great distances, which meant additional expenditures on fuel, air pollution, and stress on the bees themselves.
“If we succeed in coping with the Varoaa destructor,” Slavsky says, “then we at least will solve the part of the problem of the bees’ disappearance that this mite causes.”
However, unlike in the US, the problem has almost only drawn the attention of beekeepers thus far in Israel. The Israeli Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development’s Agricultural Extension Service, researchers from the ministry’s research department and the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Agriculture, and the ministry’s veterinarian are searching for solutions. So far, however, they have not found them.
Meanwhile, there are additional problems to cope with such as pesticides. As more land in Israel is developed, bees have become increasingly dependent on agricultural land for food, but agriculture depends heavily on pesticides. In recent years, there has been a switch to using “healthy” pesticides that do not harm hot-blooded animals, but only pests and insects. The bee, however, is an insect and still is harmed by them.
“The problem of spraying pesticides is first of all one of awareness and then one of coordination and comprehension,” Rudolf says, explaining that since bees can fly up to three kilometers in any direction from their hive, before spraying pesticides, farmers must make sure that they and their neighbors are not hosting pollination activities within six kilometers of the area to be sprayed.
Slavsky recalls that one summer, pesticides were sprayed in the sorghum fields at Kibbutz Beit Keshet with no warning.
“In summer, sorghum flowers and becomes a source of food for bees so three beekeepers were active in the area of the sorghum fields,” he says. “Two had apiaries with thousands of hives each. The third had 300 hives. Each of them placed 200 hives between one kilometer and 1.5 kilometers from the sorghum fields. And then, in the middle of the day, without informing neighbors or anyone in advance, a plane appeared and sprayed pesticides on the sorghum. All the bees in the hives near the fields died. The large apiaries lost 200 of thousands of hives and could handle the loss. The small apiary that lost 200 of 300 hives closed.”
Rudolf notes that such disasters are avoidable since bees are not active at night and if pesticides that dissipate after a few hours are sprayed at night then the harm to bees is minimal.
“The problem of spraying pesticides is not trivial,” Rudolf emphasizes. “At the Dan apiary, some 800 hives are harmed every year by pesticides that are considered ‘friendly.’ Pesticides that are sprayed at the wrong time can enter nectar and even honey. Hives that are harmed in the spring will not provide honey or pollination services that year.”
An additional problem that bees face is that open areas where they can graze are shrinking both in Israel and around the world. In the US, the main problem is monoculture – huge agricultural tracts on which a single crop is raised that does not provide nectar or pollen to nurture bees. In Israel, the problem is the shrinking of open areas along with the natural vegetation as well as changes in agriculture.
“Citrus trees, particularly Shamouti and Valencia oranges, provided huge amounts of nectar, which resulted in huge amounts of honey,” Slavsky says. “However, the orchards are being chopped down at a growing rate. In the Sharon and on the coastal plain, there are almost no orchards left, while in the Galilee and the south, more and more are chopped down each year. Shamouti and Valencia oranges, once the pride of Israeli agricultural exports, are almost not grown anymore.”
As a result, the sources of nectar and pollen available to bees are shrinking. Bees are nourished by nature. It is not possible to feed them with a manmade source of protein. The reduction in nectar-rich trees, bushes, and shrubs is a severe problem that different parties have been trying to cope with in recent years, mainly by encouraging beekeepers to plant nectar-rich plants.

Red, Purple, and Green Pastures

Sima Kagan, from the Israeli Agricultural Research Organization (ARO) at the Volcani Center, sits a few meters away from the new building that houses the Israeli Gene Bank for Agricultural Crops. Kagan deals with acclimatization of plants, but in recent years has turned her attention to bees and particularly to the nectar-rich plants that nourish them.
“There is no world without bees. Wildflowers, orchards, and gardens all need bees,” she says.
Kagan grew up at Moshav Sitriyya, where she took an interest in bees and the plants that are important to them from a young age.
“There is not enough nectar,” she explains, “the combination of more asphalt and global warming means there is less water and as a result, there are less plants secreting nectar. Bees are hungry and thus they are weaker and more vulnerable to diseases and pests.
“Once bees could manage on their own, but today they need humans to provide them with pastures. The best way to do that is by planting plants, trees, and bushes that secrete nectar.
“There is no need to fear bees,” Kagan says in an appeal to gardeners and homeowners. “If there are nectar-rich plants in a garden, the bees are not at all interested in the people around them – they are busy with the nectar. It actually is when there is not nectar that they are more irritable.”
As an expert on plant acclimatization, Kagan searched for plants that suit Israel’s climate, do not need to be irrigated, and flower for long periods of the year, particularly in summer, when other plants flower less.
“There are many nectar-rich plans from arid regions,” she says. “Australia and the more arid regions of the US and South America all provide many nectar-rich plants and flowers that use little water. Many of them adapt well to Israel.”
One example of this is the eucalyptus, which as most Israelis learn as children, was brought to the Land of Israel in order to dry swamps. As a result, it is often seen as a tree that needs a great deal of water, which actually is not true. There also is a misperception that the eucalyptus grows into a huge tree whose branches could fall on those gathered in its shade, causing a disaster. Kagan objects to the injustice that was done to the eucalyptus.
“There are hundreds of eucalyptus species,” she declares. “Most of them are beautiful, with gorgeous flowers, and do not necessarily grow to 15-meter-tall trees with heavy branches. Instead, these species flower year round, do not need to be watered after the first year, and are a handsome addition to the landscape.”
About a year ago, Kagan and the Israel Honey Board published booklets on decorative nectar-rich plants that attract bees. Beekeepers could receive seedlings of these plants from Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund nurseries at no charge to plant on their land. Since this year is a sabbatical year and planting is forbidden according to Jewish religious law, plants are not being given out now, she notes, adding that some private nurseries in Israel are continuing to operate despite that and are selling nectar-rich plants from Australia and other places that individuals can plant in private gardens by their homes.
Kagan leads me to the garden surrounding the parking lots at the gene bank at the Volcani Center. White-leafed plants with purple flowers from the leucophyllum genus are blossoming beautifully in the flowerbeds surrounding the parking spots. The plant flowers in stages, she says, adding that its flowers can be used to make tea. It is a source of pollen and even though it is the middle of a hot day, many bees can be seen around the handsome bush that fills the flowerbed, along with a nectar-rich plant with gorgeous red flowers from the grevillea genus that was planted there thanks to Kagan. Each bee is busy gathering nectar and pollen from the many flowers in the garden.
The ARO website includes a detailed section in Hebrew that Kagan has written about nectar-rich plants with a list of plants, their attributes, and where it is recommended to plant them. The wealth of information on the ARO website, which includes photographs of trees and bushes as well as of their flowers, enables all those who wish to do something to help bees.
Planting nectar-rich and pollen-rich plants and bushes in home gardens will not solve the problem that the Varoaa destructor poses to the honeybee, but it will help raise public awareness and provide some sustenance for bees. If a solution to the Varoaa destructor is not found, the bees that are part of everyone’s childhood will have the same fate as dinosaurs. One third of the agriculture crops will disappear along with them. It does not take much imagination to understand this. It is time to act, and quickly, so that future generations also can enjoy watching bees buzzing from flower to flower, collecting nectar, pollinating flowers, and enabling apples, pears, almonds, zucchinis, and many other plants to give forth their fruit.

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