In front of the Api Douceur honey shop in Giromagny, France, stands an unusual glazed container next to the path leading to the hives. It is a vending machine, installed by the owners of the apiary in 2019. “When we were only two, we could not initially open the store at fixed times, so we got the idea for a vending machine. to give passers-by, or even Sunday walkers, the opportunity to buy their jar of honey, ”says 31-year-old Flavien Durant, who has run the company with Patrick Giraud since 2017. The vending machine helps them expand their customer base and try to make money on an increasingly uncertain trade.
Although Flavien and Patrick make an average of eight tons of honey a year, in 2021 the number dropped to 300 kilos. The majority of the 400 hives they had at the end of winter did not produce honey. Most beekeepers suffered the same fate. France’s honey harvest in 2021 was predicted to average around 7,000 to 9,000 tonnes per hectare. producer, according to the French National Beekeepers’ Union (UNAF). By 2020, it was about 19,000 tons.
Adverse weather conditions were to blame for such a poor harvest. The winter was particularly mild, but was followed by periods of frost, cold and rain throughout the spring and throughout the summer. June came and Flavia had not yet harvested a single kilo of honey. Even worse, he had to feed his bees and they had already devoured all the honey reserves in their hive. “It’s a lost year, a rotten year we’ve never seen before.”
The situation was such that Flavien decided to find an extra job. He is now working in the construction industry and hopes to be able to return to care for his bees this spring. “As a leader, it is easier for me to come and go from the apiary. And it gives me the opportunity to continue with our two employees, which we really want to stick to. ”
The Territoire de Belfort department is currently considering declaring a “beekeeping accident” that could pave the way for state aid. So far, Flavien and his business partner have received € 4,000 in aid from the local authority to offset the losses caused by the late frost. “For producers like us who live off what we produce when we do not produce, the solution is to live off our reserves. But once you have started, they are very limited, ”says Flavien. They only had enough reserves to hold until December.
The prelude to an environmental disaster
It is not only in France that beekeepers are having a hard time, but throughout Europe, reflecting a broader trend. Honey production and bee survival have been steadily declining in recent decades. Honeybee mortality is currently around 30 per cent. In 1995, it was five percent, according to UNAF. And yet bees contribute around € 22 billion to the European agricultural sector each year – not thanks to the honey they produce, but to the pollination services they provide to crops. Researchers estimate that every third bite of food is dependent on pollinators.
Climate disturbances are not solely responsible for this decline. The pesticides that have been used extensively since the 1990s have also played their part. Several studies have shown the toxicity of these substances, such as the one conducted by the University of Maryland in 2016, which also highlights the dangers of the cocktail effect of pesticides.
Sébastien Guillier is more than familiar with the problem. In 2008, he lost most of his colonies, probably due to poisoning. He had worked as a professional beekeeper for ten years in the Haute-Saône in northeastern France. “In the autumn of 2007, the bees were thirsty. Treatments had been used in the area to combat red spider mites on wheat, and the bees drank from the puddles, as they often do. The dose must have been too high, ”explains the beekeeper.
There is one particular category of insecticides that very early proved to be dangerous for bees: neonicotinoids. In 2018, the EU banned the use of three of them. Today, however, as with other banned substances, farmers can take advantage of emergency permits to use these products on certain crops.
EU member states can grant emergency permits for up to 120 days where there is “a danger that can not be controlled in any other reasonable way”, according to the EU directive that regulates these emergency measures. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has identified 17 emergency measures since 2020, all for beet. Between 2018 and 2020, however, Greenpeace’s journalism project Excavated registered at least 67 emergency permits in the various EU Member States.
After his loss in 2008, Sébastien tried to raise the issue in the French parliament and media. To little use. He received € 45 per. state compensation, although the amount needed to rebuild the colony was around € 150 per. beehive. He too had to find another job. He now works as a milk inspector and keeps about 100 hives in the countryside in Haute-Saône.
In France, only three percent of the country’s 70,000 beekeepers were professionals in 2019. The rest were amateurs (92 percent) or pluri-active (5 percent). And although the number of beekeepers is increasing almost everywhere in Europe, the pattern is the same as in France: they are mainly amateurs. European beekeepers have an average of 21 hives.
Another stress factor for beekeepers is the cheap competition from abroad. Supermarket prices are far too low for local beekeepers to make a living from, especially for those producing on a small scale.
Some of the manufacturers that keep prices very low are based in Eastern European countries, such as Ukraine, but many are also in China. One kilogram of imported Chinese honey cost retailers an average of € 1.40 by 2020. Most beekeepers in the EU cannot compete with such prices. Their average production cost is already € 3.90 per. kilograms according to Copa-Cogeca, which represents farmers and agri-cooperatives in the EU. About 40 percent of the honey on the European market is imported.
“I decided not to try to compete with these low prices, but rather to sell my honey at a more sustainable price,” explains Berlin beekeeper Moritz Seidler. He refuses to sell his honey for anything under 14 euros per. kilos for companies and about 20 euros per. kilos for private individuals.
For him, it is about setting an example. “I do not live off my honey sales, but I do not want to lower my prices, out of respect for professional beekeepers,” he says, as he gently lifts the lid of a beehive in a corner of his small garden. the outskirts of the city. The conditions here are ideal for his bees: they can enjoy soft plants all year round and are exposed to very little pesticide. The 32-year-old beekeeper has 20 hives and he managed to harvest about 750 kilos of honey in 2021.
As in France, most German beekeepers have less than 50 hives and are not dependent on the income they earn from beekeeping. The problem, according to Moritz, is the lack of recognition of the profession: “Beekeepers are only paid for the honey, not for the real service the bees provide by foraging plants, except in a few exceptional cases where agreements are made with farmers. “For him, honey should be valued for the service it provides in terms of biodiversity, not just for its sweet taste.
However, he acknowledges that there are signs of hope. “When I started, I was by far the youngest in our beekeepers’ association. The youngest after me must have been around 50 years old. I was 13 at the time. “Things have changed since then. More and more people are showing interest in bees, as the growing number of hobby beekeepers is showing.
Innovation to save the profession
In Galicia in northern Spain, beekeepers face similar concerns. Like Moritz, Félix Javier González trusts the high quality of his honey and sustainable methods of beating the competition. A trained biologist, Félix Javier, struggled to find a stable contract to continue his laboratory research in invertebrates. One day a friend invited him to visit his hives. “I loved it and saw the potential in it to use my skills.”
His in-depth knowledge of insects has contributed to his success. Since buying his first hives in 2015, he has learned the best way to care for them and to produce quality honey. His bees stay in one place all year round, mostly in the mountains, surrounded by wild flowers. His honey meets organic standards. “I wanted to make sure the honey was free of pesticides. But of course it is also a sales strategy. I cater to customers who eat organic and want good quality, ”he explains.
Marketing also plays a role. To reflect the purity of his honey, he called it Salvaxe, ‘wild’ in Galician, the language spoken in the region where he produces his honey. “We do not interfere much in the hives. We do not stimulate them and rarely use any kind of treatment. We just place the hives and keep an eye on them. It is almost like wild honey,” says Félix Javier.
He is also dependent on innovation. His catalog consists primarily of traditional honey, but he is constantly testing new products to attract new customers. His honey-chocolate blend – a healthier alternative to traditional chocolate spread – is the most successful. “I can not complain, I sell everything I produce. And I could produce more, ”he admits. This young beekeeper has 300 hives and he produces an average of four tons of honey a year.
But it has not always been an easy road. For the first three years, his expenses were higher than his income. And now, although beekeeping is a more stable option than scientific research, it is not a panacea. “It’s not really profitable, but it can be sustainable,” he says. His honey is sold for between € 10 and € 12 per. kilo.
Like his colleagues across the continent, his biggest enemy is the unpredictable weather. But he also fears the growing number of hobby beekeepers who can afford to sell below market prices.
Finally, climate change is forcing professional beekeepers practicing transhumance, often from southern Spain, to move north. It creates competition for Félix Javier’s bees. Nomadic beekeeping is widespread in Europe, especially in the south, as it allows honeybees to feed themselves as much as possible by giving them access to resources from spring to autumn. However, it is not the most comfortable lifestyle for them as they suffer from stress during the journey. But for many professionals, it is the only way to ensure that their bees have enough to eat.
This article is translated from French.