Betrayed and sold out – German bee monitoring
Walter Haefeker

After 2 years of cooperation the Deutsche Berufs- und Erwerbsimkerbund (German Association of Professional Beekeepers – DBIB) is now about to withdraw from the bee monitoring project. The decisive factor behind this decision is that despite repeated attempts by the DBIB, the German chemical industry refuses to have the investigations cover plant protection products to the same extent as other factors.

After several beekeepers' representatives expressed their astonishment at this approach, the issue was resolved by the company Bayer itself carrying out laboratory investigations - which all produced no finding.

In the second year the German chemical industry completely did away with any investigations regarding this issue. Instead, it was decided that the samples should be frozen, and that these should then only be investigated for plant protection product residues when required.

This meant that this issue had been sidelined. Instead, in the project budget big cuts were made regarding funding for all possible investigations into illnesses afflicting bees.

Consequently a budget item for independent laboratory investigations on plant protection products no longer existed!

There was also no research work to determine which plant protection products are deployed in the immediate vicinity of honey bee colonies. Hence, it can easily be said that targeted investigations of specific plant protection products are not possible.

And this allowed one to happily concentrate on the most important part of the project: the press work.

Here really thorough work was done. Here nothing was sidelined. The doors of the Federal Press Conference were suddenly wide open. The press jungle was full of life. Lectures were delivered. Deutschlandfunk started reporting even while the project members were still engaged in a meeting. Deutschlandfunk even reported that the monitoring had shown that genetic engineering posed no danger to beekeeping, even though this was not even the subject of the investigations.

But if one uses money to pacify the beekeeping front, one naturally has to try and maximise the PR benefit.

We have tried to obtain a recording of the broadcast.

Deutschlandfunk claims it does not have a recording because the broadcast was produced as an external production commissioned by the German Farmers' Association. The German Farmers' Association claims it knows nothing about this.

The recording is still missing today!

The DBIB once again expressed its criticism at the so-called "round table" on 9th November. This only resulted in this not even being mentioned in the records drawn up by the German Farmers' Association.

What one does not want to accept is simply not mentioned. All this has fuelled our mistrust, and it raises the suspicion that the bee monitoring was only intended to keep beekeepers quiet and to give the chemical industry time to continue unhindered in using the plant protection products that were the focus of criticism.

And there are enough reasons for this.

With regard to the chemical industry one can expect that no money is spent which does not indirectly or directly contribute towards the company's profit. Company law specifically forbids corporate groups carrying out charitable operations. In such a case the shareholders would be able to sue the board of directors for the incorrect use of funds. But during the course of the project there were no complaints about it being financed. Every suggestion that substances which were dangerous for bees should be treated in the same way as they are in France can be brushed off by referring to the ongoing investigations. This secures millions in sales over the years. Here it is certainly worthwhile investing some petty cash.

Against this background it is hardly surprising how easy it is to see through the whole thing if the representative of the chemical industry has already prepared the press statement for the round table on his laptop even before the meeting has actually taken place, and presents this press statement as a general absolution for the financial backers, presents many other causes and points to very good honey harvests this year, without a single word about the reservations expressed by the representatives of the beekeepers at the "round table".

When the issue of new substances for the treatment of rape seeds was raised, another objective of the round table was clearly revealed.

The representative of Syngenta was annoyed that the beekeepers had directly contacted the respective responsible authorities regard the issue of a lack of licences for ELADO. They argued that such issues should be resolved at the "round table". Otherwise he would not be able to justify to his company the provision of funding for the monitoring project.

With regard to the bee institutes this raises the question of why everything was accepted without any criticism?

Firstly for the institutes the bee monitoring means that additional funding is available.

Naturally the suspicion that this project is simply one purely financed by the chemical industry as a favour is very upsetting for the participating institutes.

Therefore it is pointed out that the monitoring programme is not just financed by the chemical industry, but that the institutes now also make a roughly equal contribution through their own work.

However, the institutions do not carry out this work in their spare time but, instead with employees and resources that are actually financed from other sources and which were earmarked for other purposes.

Here it is justifiable to ask what proportion of the EU financial support for beekeepers the institutions received within the framework of EU regulation no. 1221, and why the beekeepers do not receive this money? And if the beekeepers demand that plant protection products should be completely included in investigations, why is this money not spent for this purpose?

It is an artificial strategy on the part of the chemical industry to settle costs for the project annually instead of providing the funding at the beginning of the project.

This approach enables the project to be abandoned at any time should it, for instance, produce undesirable results. This generates a conflict of interests between the participating institutions: if there are any unwanted results the money could possibly no longer be available. What remains here is a "bad aftertaste".

The institutions also regard it as normal for the next press campaigns and series of lectures to be planned with a great effort and military precision although this project has up to now produced very little that could justify such a fuss. However, one has to make a big fuss again every year, because this is the perfect way to distract from the original issue at stake.

The accusation levelled at the institutions is not that they manipulate results but that they do not vehemently support the beekeepers and demand that there is a balanced investigation in all directions, which also includes plant protection products.

The institutions proudly report that the German project is really respected in Europe. Colleagues from other countries would say it would not be possible to do this sort of thing with the beekeepers' associations in France.

From discussions with French beekeepers we know how the monitoring is really regarded there. At a meeting of various European beekeepers' associations in Paris to address the issue of plant protection products, which COPA wanted to prevent, our colleagues politely but forcefully said the following to us:
"Only in Germany are the beekeepers naive enough to get involved with this PR strategy of the chemical industry. You not only make yourselves a laughing stock, but you also weaken the position of beekeepers in other EU countries."

The worries of our European colleagues are justified. The Europeanisation of the German bee monitoring is already being advanced, because the results of this project are also to be used for getting plant protection products out of the firing line in other countries. We are certainly not doing our European colleagues any favours if we use ourselves as a fig leaf for a project whose structure does not guarantee result-oriented research.

Naturally we beekeepers should be always interested in real monitoring being carried out. As mentioned above, our association was actually the driving force behind the initiative for monitoring. We must continue to support a project that is exclusively financed by public funding, so that plausible results are possible. We must ensure that the bee institutes are released from this serious conflict of interests and are able to work independently.

We are not intending to have one or another plant protection product banned. Our goal must be to learn what we ourselves can do better in the way we operate and what people in the cultural landscape – where our bees live and should be able to survive – can do better in order that the many factors which make our bees increasingly weak can gradually be improved in a step-by-step approach.

Although a far-reaching reform of the licensing procedures for plant protection products is not the only issue at stake, it is an important one.

In its current form the German bee monitoring does not help us any further here, but is instead designed to hinder us. We have watched it for two years. Many members of our association were involved in it. We showed our good will and displayed a great amount of trust in advance, because although we had considerable doubts about it we urged our members to participate. Perhaps one thing that we could criticise ourselves for is the fact that we waited so long before underlining our position in this way.

Unfortunately we have not been able to keep the overwhelming influence of the chemical industry within reasonable limits. In the interests of all beekeepers we will therefore have to recommend our members to terminate their participation in this project if our demands, which have been known for a while, are not implemented at long last.

Therefore we would hereby like to reiterate our list of demands:

  1. In investigating the causes all possible factors should be treated in the same way. If we beekeepers do something wrong we want to recognise this, so that we can improve our ways of operating. If there are new pathogens, we want to find them and learn how to control them. If plant protection products weaken our bees, we want to know this and wish to develop a strategy to minimise damage together with chemical industry, the German Farmers' Association and the authorities. Here we are aware that plant protection products are required in farming, but we would also like to point out that organic farming illustrates that it cannot be argued that there is always no alternative to using the approach adopted by the chemical industry.
  2. If it is regarded as worthwhile to record the whole spectrum of possible bee illnesses on a routine basis, this also has to apply to examining the presence of the most important plant protection products.
  3. Numerous scientific works have illustrated that an impairment of the efficiency of the bees occurs long before the adult bees die. If the flying bees of a bee colony are disoriented, this means that one of the functions crucial to their survival is disrupted. The sublethal effect can already be observed when there are concentrations by which the presence of the respective plant protection product can be proved but not quantified. In the investigations carried out by Bayer results which do not reach the quantifiable level are not taken into consideration. However, all results for which the presence of specific plant protection products can be proved should be taken into account in aetiology.
  4. The investigations must be carried out using the analysis methods which currently have the lowest possible levels for proving and quantifying.
  5. Manufacturers of plant protection products have a conflict of interests, and therefore should not be regarded as an independent investigation laboratory. In the monitoring project sufficient resources must be provided to allow investigations of plant protection products by an independent laboratory which we trust.
  6. In the investigation of the honey bee colonies the agricultural environment must also be examined to determine the type of cultures and plant protection methods which are used.
  7. Transparency: an approved report should be published on the Internet and in the press. An offensive PR campaign going beyond such publications is then only worthwhile if it is aimed at communicating results that can be practically implemented on a broad basis. This was not the case in the past.
  8. The fact that this project is being carried out should not be allowed to delay the implementation of improvement possibilities that we are already aware of.

If - as the chemical industry likes to claim – varroa mites are the main reason why the bees are dying, then it is incomprehensible why:

  1. we don't have any support for the licensing of 85% formic acid,
  2. after a long struggle and a considerable delay only a method using oxalic acid treatment is allowed,
  3. the use of varroosis treatments, which involves the problem of residues accumulating and resistance building up, is still supported,
  4. inflated bureaucracy in the application of European law on animal medicines for beekeeping is not prevented,
  5. specialist consultants' training for beekeepers has to be restricted to outdated methods because other methods are not authorised.

If the chemical industry is really convinced that the problem here is caused by varroa, then it would be advisable to support the beekeepers' approach concerning the question of substances for varroa treatment.

There has also been no progress regarding the methods used in the investigations for determining the dangers for bees during the licensing process for plant protection products.

The figures contained in the statistics of the Biologische Bundesanstalt für Land- und Forstwirtschaft (Federal Biological Research Centre for Agriculture and Forestry – BBA) on the extent of the damage to bees in Germany only appear to show a decrease because there is an increase in undetected cases.

As already pointed out, the above demands are certainly not new for the organisers of the monitoring project. Unfortunately they were not implemented over the past two years to win the trust of beekeepers.

Moreover, plenty of time has been wasted in addressing the issues which we are really interested in, and money has been diverted to bee monitoring. We therefore recommend that you act according to the principle of Erich Kästner:

"Never sink so low that you will even drink the mess they pull you through!"

Walter Haefeker
Deutscher Berufs - und Erwerbsimkerbund