Saturday 7 June 2014

Honey bee populations in France – some facts and figures

It’s very difficult to get accurate information or an accurate perspective when it comes to the subject of Honey bee populations and this is for a number of reasons that are mostly obvious for anyone that is willing to take a dispassionate view or at least try.

The reason a dispassionate view is required is due to the simple fact that almost everyone involved with honey bees has an agenda, no doubt I have as well but I’ll try to stick to the facts in so far as they can be separated from the modern day myths that are taking over the world and try to be clear when I am speculating or perhaps expressing an opinion.

I find it quite extraordinary in this age of science and technology that far from diminishing the number of myths fed by disingenuous or downright stupid information sources is actually increasing at an alarming rate and the subject of honey bees has now become a gathering place for all manner of people to climb aboard without any real clue about the subject matter and who probably don’t know a honey bee from a hoverfly. Then there is the not so small matter of the gravy train that has been generated with so many people that have their employment dependent on there being problems with honey bees. Huge sums of money are sloshing around from all manner of sources with some of that coming from the pesticide industry. Even Avaaz an online petition provider is asking for donations to fund “an independent research program into what is killing our bees” but when you look you can see it’s anything but impartial and certainly not accurate. Put all of this together and the stage is set for a Whitehall farce of epic proportions with all manner of scams and vested interests at every turn.

From the outset when trying to assess the number of managed colonies in France we need to be realistic and accept that all we can hope for are approximate numbers as will become clear. This is in part due to how hives are registered here.

Before the 1st of January 2010 a person could have up to 10 populated bee hives without any registration or formalities what so ever.

From the 1st of January 2010 with a view to better monitoring of bee populations it became a requirement to register all populated bee hives and their locations starting with the first colony.

Fiscally with up to 40 hives a person pays no social charges, (these are normally around 28% of income in agriculture), although you do have to declare the number of your hives with your tax return and some tax offices may charge an annual tax per hive, normally a few Euro for each hive per annum.

From 40 to 200 hives you are required to pay what is called MSA solidarity which is a reduced charge that provides no benefits such as pension contributions. It is assumed that people with this number of hives either have another income source or benefit from free healthcare.

Over 200 hives and you are treated as a full business and pay full charges via MSA which is the collector of contributions for health, pension and other State charges for people involved in agriculture which includes apiculture.

With human nature being what it is the system encourages keepers to keep their numbers of colonies restricted or perhaps even to under declare. In fact it is generally assumed by the inspectors I have met that as many as  50% of the hives in France aren’t declared and there are undoubtedly a number of people with less than 10 hives in rural areas that don’t even know that they should be declaring them now. All the studies that are available for the number of keepers, number of hives and production of honey per hive annually are in fact no more than broad estimations.

With all this in mind we need to look at the last 35 years partly because this is the period where we have the best records and it is also because this period has seen the most changes for Honey bees in France. Needless to say it’s complex with a number of important overlapping events and changes with little if any statistics until the early 90’s.

Basic figures.

Estimates put the number of beekeepers owning at least one hive in 2010 at 41,836 as opposed to 69,237 in 2004 and 84,214 in 1994 an overall decline of 50% in keepers; however the number of hives has only declined by 21% from 1,351,991 in 1994 to 1,074,218 in 2010. There has been a greater reduction in actual honey production of 28% due to reduced yields.

A third of all French bee keepers are over 61 years old with the majority of the remainder being more than 40 years old, rarely do young people choose the activity. Most people involved in apiculture in France have another income source that is often but not always in agriculture.

There are several possible reasons why the number of people keeping bees has fallen in recent years and we only have to look at the age groups above to realise it’s not something that younger people are flocking to anymore and this applies to agriculture in general.

It’s labour intensive and far from the easiest way to earn a living or even gain a supplementary income in the modern world and faces stiff competition from countries that can produce at a lower price especially since the Single European Market and the opening up of the Eastern European Countries plus the Countries that made up the former Yugoslavia.

The arrival of the Varroa mite in 1982 initially had some impact on increased colony failures which was in part compounded by over zealous use of pesticides and other substances in hives to control them.

Gaucho, (Imidaclopride), a Neonicotinoid, was introduced agriculturally as a seed treatment in 1992 mainly for Sunflowers and Maize and along with other Neonicotinoids in use since then have been widely thought to negatively impact honey bees, (currently banned in the EU since 2013 and not used with crops this year 2014).

Glyphosate, (often known by the trade name Roundup), a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide used to kill plants has also become the number one herbicide in both agriculture, communal areas and domestic gardens during this period. It also contains substantial added substances dependant on required use such as Surfactants which are compounds that lower the surface tension (or interfacial tension) between two liquids or between a liquid and a solid. Surfactants may act as detergents, wetting agents, emulsifiers, foaming agents, and dispersants. Regardless of any toxic effects these may have it’s clear that they have and are playing a major role in changing the nature of the habitat with a massive reduction in native plant species.

Throughout this same period we have seen the greatest change in crops and habitat ever with hundreds of thousands of kilometres of hedgerow and vast hectarages of heath-land and hay meadow removed to make way for larger and larger fields of Maize, Oil Seed Rape and other cereals. There has also been an intensification of the way that Honey bees are exploited such as to supply the luxury market with products such as Royal Jelly and pollen or the transportation of colonies from crop to crop to provide pollination for monoculture in the broad sense with some 60,000 hives being hired out and transported simply for pollination purposes each year. Transporting populated hives also takes on an increasing scale to produce more single nectar honeys that can be sold at higher prices. Overall there has been what I would call a trend towards industrialisation of honey bees in much the same way as we have and continue to industrialise and exploit our food production.

Additionally there has been a large increase in the number of honey bees imported either as Queens, packages or on frames with a corresponding loss of native bees. Any or all of these may be damaging to colony survival, Queen Longevity or honey yields although as the INRA studies have shown untreated and unmanaged honey bee colonies with local bees survive on average for about seven and half years.

Interestingly Organic apiaries more than doubled in the period 2004 – 2010 from 144 to 360 with 69,495 hives but some of these will use permitted treatments in their hives. Only 2.6% of French Beekeepers are known to use no treatments at all in their hives including the so called natural treatments.

Permitted treatments in France are:



I realise this is a bit lengthy but I’ve tried to keep it as short as possible whist at the same time highlighting the main features and facts and as it stands much more could have been included. We also mustn’t loose sight of the fact that it’s completely natural for bee colonies to fail at a rate that would more or less match their creation. Needless to say this is not a straight line and losses will vary from year to year as it does with other species.

Some other links which may be useful: