What is happening to Turkey's bees?

As a new honey harvesting season begins in Turkey, newspapers describe nightmare scenarios that might be more at home in the movies.

What is happening to Turkey's bees?

As a new honey harvesting season begins in Turkey, newspapers describe nightmare scenarios that might be more at home in the movies.

If the rumors are true, Turkey's bee population has been decimated and the livelihoods of thousands of families could hang in tatters. Worse still, no one knows just what is behind the alleged "mass deaths" of Turkey's bees.

What many agree on is that there will be 30 to 40 percent less honey produced this year, compared to the previous year, meaning about 10,000 families who make their living directly from the honey business are now gloomily awaiting the harvest. Similar reports are coming in from all over Turkey and the most recent news comes from Thrace. Currently officials are investigating the causes for this decrease in the bee population and brainstorming ways to counter the losses.

It has been reported that several regions in Turkey -- predominantly around the regions of Hatay, Ankara, Artvin, Ardahan, Adıyaman, Diyarbakır, Muş and Van -- saw the death of as much as 50 percent of their colonies over the winter. However beekeepers insist that there have not been an unusually high number of deaths.

"Mass death is the wrong expression. Turkey has never experienced mass bee losses in its hives. There are, however, colony collapses and considerable decreases in the bee population," says Erdoğan Altınordu, head of the Beekeepers Union in Edirne.

Ziya Şahin, head of the Beekeepers Union in Muğla, thinks the bee losses are being exaggerated. "I don't believe there are serious bee losses in Turkey. We are such emotional people and generally tend to exaggerate even little matters. However a loss of 10 or 15 percent is generally experienced each year and is very normal," he said.

According to the experts it will be up to science to the cause. Some factors might include the inadequate and improper nutrition of the bees as well as hygiene problems and parasites such as Varroa destructor (an external parasitic mite that can devastate bee colonies). Still another factor seriously impacting beekeeping this year is climate change.

"It is too early to say that the most important reason for bee loss is global warming; all other reasons must be examined," says Professor Aykut Kence of the department of biological sciences at the Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ).

Professor Kadriye Sorkun, head of the Bee and Bee Products Research and Application Center at Hacettepe University, states: "This winter saw the same weather conditions as a spring season. The hardworking bee was fooled by the winter sunlight to consume its stocks and find new food. Unfortunately the bees left their hives and, as the flowers had not blossomed yet, they could not find nectar. Then, because the weather grew colder after a short time, bees, which cannot move in extreme temperatures, could not return to their hives."

Professor Sorkun also notes that recent catastrophic forest fires in Muğla, the top pine honey producing city in Turkey, will seriously impact pine honey production in the near future.

Turkey's leading honey producer, Balparmak, supports this prediction. "Drought affected pine honey as well and there will unfortunately be no more pure pine honey production from our firm until Aug. 15," company officials say.

The beekeeping consultant for the Turkish Foundation for Reforestation, Protection of Natural Habitats and Combating Soil Erosion (TEMA), Ahmet İnci, believes it is possible to stop the loss of bees using advanced beekeeping techniques. In fact a result of TEMA projects on bee nutrition and care in Artvin was a rate of loss of only 11 percent in the winter of 2006-2007. Meanwhile the rate of loss in regions where the projects were not implemented was as high as 66 percent.

Professor Sorkun seems troubles at the implications of climate change for beekeeping, saying: "While other sectors can take preventative measures related to heat, beekeeping is entirely dependent on climate and flora. Still there are lots of things that can be done to prevent loss of bees. For example the training of the beekeepers in Turkey is critical."

These days another strong claim is made that cell phones are preventing bees from navigating. In the Bağören village of Kızılcahamam, Ankara, Hüsamettin Beşler's bee colonies -- located just 500 meters away from a base station -- did not survive the winter. Other beekeepers in the same village saw only a 50 percent loss in their colonies and some think the base station may have been the cause of Beşler's woes. Still, it has not yet been scientifically proven that base stations are to blame. "An American researcher has been working on this issue in the ODTÜ laboratories for a month. According to preliminary findings it appears cell phones are not responsible. However it is necessary to wait for the final results and all data before making conclusions. No matter whatever the reason, bee losses are affecting both the economy and ecosystem of Turkey. The economic value of honey and bee production is trivial in comparison with the honeybee's services as a pollinator," says İnci.

Without bees there will be a considerable decrease in agricultural products, particularly with fruit trees, nuts and grains. Considering everything is interdependent in nature, this will potentially have catastrophic results for the food chain.

The financial role of the honeybee, too, cannot be ignored. "The bee's contribution to agricultural production is $200 billion worldwide and 14 billion euros in Europe. This figure is estimated to be millions of dollars in Turkey," says Professor Kence.

Professor Sorkun also points out that bees in the US are used for pollination more than honey production. Producers are paying beekeepers to have their hives to assist in their agricultural production, using the rented hives to fertilize flowers. As Associate Professor Tuğrul Giray stated in the February 2007 edition of the Uludağ Beekeeping Journal, renting hives now costs about $150 in the US.

The Turkish beekeeping sector is being supported by the EU within the framework of Turkey-EU negotiations. Today EU member states are exporting considerable amounts of honey from non-EU countries. Turkey has the flora capacity to respond to this demand. "Turkey has a large gene pool for bees. Of the 25 species of bees worldwide, five of them live in Turkey. This is insurance for agricultural production not only in Turkey but globally," says Professor Kence.

Muğla is one of the cities currently receiving project support from the EU. During the 18-month training process numerous veterinary surgeons were employed to educate beekeepers there. The range of products was enriched and 10 more major plants were established for processing bee products. Follow-up studies of the trained beekeepers were carried out during the following year and both the quality and yield of honey were observed to have improved considerably. Now more cities are trying to get EU approval for their apicultural (beekeeping) projects. Professor Sorkun notes the insufficient number of experts on bee diseases.

There are lots of standards when it comes to honey production. Organic honey production is a promising market considering the rich flora of Turkey. Most common in Borçka district of Artvin and Ardahan, this honey is produced entirely from natural flowers in an unpolluted environment without the use of any artificial materials, such as chemical fertilizer or pesticides. Organic beekeeping must be approved by international certification firms -- in addition to domestic certification. There are already 50 organic beekeepers in Artvin and it is expected that 105 more will begin production this year. "However, because the cost of organic beekeeping is very high, it is not very efficient in Turkey yet," says Professor Sorkun.

There are about 38,000 families in Turkey who make a living from the beekeeping sector in some way. Some of the supply industries for the sector include beekeeping material production, basic hive production, hive and medicine industry machine production and packaging materials production. According to 2005 data, there are about 50 million honeybee colonies in the world and Turkey, its fifth-largest honey producer, exports approximately 5,000-6,000 tons of honey around the globe.

"The honey production sector in Turkey could be at least 10 times bigger than it is today," says İnci of TEMA. Because of this beekeepers should be supported by the state, he adds. "Agricultural producers are being supported financially in order to compensate their losses due to global warming. The state decreased the value added tax (VAT) for all kinds of foods, but beekeepers are unable to utilize such support," remarks Şahin.

It is also surprising that, despite frequent media attention, the agriculture minister states there has been no mass deaths of bees reported to the ministry. Professor Sorkun explains this by saying: "The beekeeper, for instance, cannot report Varroa, an important and irremovable parasite [infestation], because it means experts will come in and burn hives immediately. Unfortunately the state does not repay the losses suffered by burning colonies until months after the operation." Myth or reality, one thing is certain: If Turkey wants its beekeeping industry to thrive, then it must do all it can to support it.

Sunday's Zaman

Güncelleme Tarihi: 22 Temmuz 2007, 11:51