While 15 departments are already under water restrictions due to early drought, farmers are concerned about their crops. A threat that also weighs heavily on beekeepers and their bees, who may run out of food this summer.
In Thomas Devian’s apiaries, the spring harvest was not “bad”. But things could get worse in the coming weeks. “It shouldn’t go on like this,” warns the Lille district beekeeper, worried that “the grass has already burnt well.”
Like farmers, the beekeeping industry’s eyes are focused on the weather as France faces an early drought. Temperatures have risen since the beginning of May, and groundwater levels are particularly low for the season after winter and autumn with little rainfall.
“Given the drought and the risk of heat waves, we are very concerned about the second part of the season with the big crops: chestnuts, lemons, lavender, fir…” beekeeping (Unaf).
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In 2021, the beekeeping sector experienced the worst year in its history as only 7000 to 9000 tons of honey were harvested, due to unfavorable weather conditions, half of the previous year.
Nectar is becoming rare
If it is too early to make predictions, in the Marine Alps, the consequences of drought are already clear. Honey yield was virtually non-existent in the department in the spring. In question, very low precipitation but also low temperatures. “We had very unpleasant temperatures from February to April, with painful frosts. It’s not just about drought, it’s a combination of factors”, according to the nuances, Provencal beekeeper Jean-Louis Lotard.
If bees need water to live, they mainly need to feed on nectar, a sweet liquid produced by flowers. However, with a lack of water, plants have difficulty growing, threatening the food supply of bees. “If plants suffer, they cannot produce nectar, which prevents bees from eating it to make honey,” explains Henri Clément.
“The lack of water for the animal itself is very rare, the problem comes from plant resources,” defines Pascal Jordan, director of the Association for the Development of Beekeeping in Provencal (Adapi), a structure founded in 1986, which conducts research on the bee.
Thus the lack of food has consequences for the cell population. In times of scarcity, the queen reduces her status, which means fewer foraging bees and lower honey production.
To deal with these unfavorable climatic conditions, some beekeepers practice migration: they move their hives to take advantage of the temperate climate, where the flowers have not been exposed to sunstroke. A proven practice for centuries in certain areas, the procedure is performed at night when the bees are asleep.
Thus, Jean-Louis Lotard has just transferred part of his cells to the province of Al-Ain located to the north. He comes there to look for the acacia flower that blooms until the end of May and is loved by bees. “I follow the bees as shepherds do with sheep. I try to adapt and do not live in anxiety because by definition, it is a very random production, you have to accept,” the philosopher-Provencal beekeeper.
“In Provence, the end of the season takes place in the mountains or in lavender plantations,” adds Pascal Jordan. He adds: “So we will depend heavily on the climatic conditions in these areas, and not on the climate on the coast. However, if there are no rains during the end of May and June, there, we are clearly heading towards a disaster,” the expert.
Especially since drought is far from being the only enemy of these biodiversity stewards: parasites, pollution, pesticides or even Asian wasps are decimating bee colonies in France and elsewhere. “From a mortality rate of 5% per year in the mid-1990s, we have moved up to 30%,” Henri Clément recalls. An Unaf spokesperson adds: “300,000 colonies disappear annually in France that must be reconstituted by beekeepers.”
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To reduce the alarming death rate, specialists in this sector are calling for massive support from public authorities for agroecology or even better control of phytosanitary products.