Just off rumbling Route 44 in central Israel, smack in the shadow of Assaf Harofeh Medical Center, sits Tzrifin Farm, a pocket of greenery managed by the Ministry of Agriculture. And it is here that Victoria (Vicky) Soroker, an entomologist and one of Israel’s leading researchers on bees, can be found counting pupae.
It’s hottest June, and the white protective masks and jumpsuits worn by Soroker and her crew aren’t helping. But despite the sweat, the glare and the constant buzz of hundreds of agitated bees, Soroker and her team are calmly piercing every 10th pupae in their hives, a method, they say, that will lead to insight into the hygiene of the bees and thus the state of their health.
She has reason to be taking her work so seriously. Since 2007, bees across the world have been mysteriously dying out, with losses most severe in the United States but also ravaging the bee populations in Europe and the Middle East. The phenomenon, called Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, has by some estimates wiped out up to 80% of the bees in the US. In Israel, the impact has been less catastrophic, but still extraordinarily grave — experts say that about half of the bees here have succumbed.
For those who fear bee stings or hate the buzzing of insects, the sudden collapse of the world’s bee population may not seem like such a bad thing. To these naysayers, Soroker and her colleagues are quick to point out that the loss of bees means more than the loss of honey. Since most of the world’s produce depends on pollination and the bees that do the dirty work, the loss of those striped, winged insects would ravage the world’s stocks of fruits and veggies. Without bumblebees, you can kiss your apples, berries, almonds and avocados goodbye.
“If it doesn’t get worse this year, it will definitely get worse next year,” says Soroker. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to panic. While emergency flares have been thrown by several US agencies dealing with agriculture and honeybees, in the Holy Land, bee researchers are staying calm.
Yes, many bees are dying, Soroker says. But the culprit is not some mysterious buzz-eating disease that cannot be controlled. One of the major causes of bee die-offs in Israel is a parasitic mite called varroa destructor, which is showing troubling resistance to all known treatments and which is slowly devastating entire colonies across the country.
“We know that varroa is a big. difficult issue to deal with,” Soroker says. “The fact that we know that varroa is now enemy No. 1 one doesn’t make it easy to treat it.”
But aside from the bee-eating mite, which causes a disease called varroatosis, most of the factors killing off bees in the rest of the world are actually completely manageable with proper foresight and research, Soroker says. They are simply the result of a world that is increasingly hot and pesticide-dependent.
In a bid to get more clarity on the situation, Soroker is encouraging Israelis to fill out a survey on local bee trends, the data of which will be crunched and compiled and hopefully give researchers a leg up in fighting off bee deaths (those who wish to participate can access the survey at http://bee.agri.gov.il/q/).
Haim Efrat, head of the Ministry of Agriculture’s beekeeping division and one of Israel’s foremost experts on the bee, agrees with Soroker. Bees depend on a complex ecosystem to live, he explains, and like the proverbial chain with one weak link, they can be felled by a single deficient factor.
“So many factors are involved in the activity and the production of a single beehive. The climatic condition, the flora, the agricultural activities around the bees, the beekeepers themselves,” he says. “In order to achieve the maximum, all the factors should be at a maximum. So if … the management or care of the beekeeper is bad, he can use the best genetic stock and he can feed them properly, but the production [of bees] will still be very low.”
Efrat is a good-natured guy — burly, casual and totally fearless of bee stings. CCD, he says, is just a code word for unknown factors. Most of the bees that have died in the past six years, he says, could have been saved if their keepers had visited the hives more often, kept more careful tabs on their health, and been more vigilant in controlling the atmosphere around them.
“As far as I know, our situation is fair,” he says of the bees in Israel. “I would not say good. It’s fair. If we keep it like this, we’ll be able to survive.”
Because the key to staving off bee deaths is control, Efrat adds, Israel is at a significant advantage. Whereas in the United States and other large countries, beekeepers may have hives that are more than a days’ travel away, in tiny Israel, beekeepers can’t lay claim to more than 1,500 square meters of terrain. That means that beekeepers live near their hives and are able to keep regular tabs on the weight, food supply and water sources of their bees. Mysterious die-offs and sudden collapses are significantly less prevalent when hives are under such close scrutiny, he says.
“The only case that can affect us dramatically is pesticides,” Efrat says. “This is a very important issue. When we are talking about pesticides, it’s not only in agriculture. It’s in extermination of homes. And we use pesticides against mosquitoes in water areas, and during the summer when it’s very hot bees need water.”
Israel is the only country, Efrat adds, that demands every beekeeper provide a clean, pesticide-free water source for its bees. Nevertheless, 15 apiaries have died out already this year because of contaminated water sources. But the very fact that the Ministry can pinpoint those 15 apiaries and has identified the exact cause of death means that the ominous label of CCD can, at least in these cases, be prevented.
Israel is unique in that its officials monitor every single hive, an intense and far-reaching system of checks that would be unthinkable in bigger countries but is, for the time being, keeping Israel’s death count on the lower side.
“Our job in the ministry is to look after the bees, to know that they’re doing okay, to be able to monitor problems that will affect the production and the activities in the future,” Efrat says. “Ninety percent of the bee colonies that died didn’t die because of CCD. They died due to bad management, not enough feeding, pesticides.”