A bee-friendly path to a healthier future

In Italy, organic farmers are helping to keep pollinators – and crops – flourishing.

Bee pollinating almond blossom

David Kosling/USDA under a Creative Commons Licence

Giorgio Baracani has been driving all night, chasing the morning light and the scent of the flowers. He makes a quick stop in a service area to meet other beekeepers and drives towards the hills, a view flecked in yellow and blue from the sunflowers and the sea.

The fields to which Baracani is headed are located near Marzocca, 300 kilometres from Rome. For more than 24 years he has been practising nomadic beekeeping. He owns 350 hives and earns an average of 32 euros ($35) per beehive by renting them to farmers for around 20 days when crops are in flower.

During the night, Baracani loads some of the hives onto his pick-up truck and takes them to the cultivated fields. Farmers call on him to have their fruit and vegetables pollinated when the plants are in flower, which helps improve the quality and quantity of their harvests. This is important in a country where five per cent more fruit and three per cent more vegetables were bought in 2015 than in 2014, according to agricultural organization Coldiretti.

Nomadic beekeeping was born out of a desire to produce different kinds of honey, but in time it has become more about a need to improve food production and to protect the life of the bees. Baracani explains that in 2008 a large number of bees in Italy died. The use of pesticides, especially neonicotinoids, applied on corn seeds caused the bees to become disorientated and eventually to die, as they could not find the way back to their hives. After this, the government introduced a precautionary ban of these substances and research on the subject began.

The use of pesticides, especially neonicotinoids, caused the bees to become disorientated and eventually to die, as they could not find the way back to their hives

‘According to the results of national programmes Apenet and Beenet, these measures have reduced the problem,’ explains Claudio Porrini, entomologist of the University of Bologna and one of those responsible for these projects. But, as Agnes Rortais from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) explains, these reductions are not enough. ‘These deaths have multiple causes and their impact varies according to the area and the time of the year.’ Rortais says that the causes of death include ‘chemical and nutritional treatments, climate change, diseases, inappropriate beekeeping practices and lack of environmental resources’.

The National Committee of Italian Beekeepers, Conapi, has sent an alert about honey production in Italy, which has shrunk by almost 70 per cent since 2011. The adoption of monoculture agriculture – where single crops are grown over large areas – has dealt a severe blow to the pollinators.

Single-crop farming is not suitable for bees, explains Serena Milano of the Slow Food for Biodiversity Foundation. Bees need to eat different kinds of pollen in order to protect their immune system. Unfortunately, the characteristic landscape of the Po Valley where Baracani drives his pickup is located in the centre of Italy, which is full of single-crop fields such as corn, wheat, carrots, onions and alfalfa. Mixed-crop agriculture and the continuation of nomadic beekeeping, however, are a must if the productivity of different local crops is to be increased.

Read Giorgio Baracani's story in comics:

The view from the Alps

The church bells ring loudly as Johannes Fragner tells the story of Malle, the first town in the world to decide through a referendum to ban the use of pesticides. Fragner is the pharmacist and his house and business lie at the heart of this little alpine town, 10 kilometres away from Switzerland and 20 kilometres from Austria. This is one of the biggest areas in Europe dedicated to fruit production, but the people of this Malle did not want the intensive farming of apple trees to be part of their landscape.

‘Bees will ensure the production of food in the future, but we have to build more sustainable agricultural models'

Fragner was one of the promoters of the 2014 referendum. Three-quarters of its citizens voted; of those, 76 per cent voted to live in a pesticide-free town. ‘The idea was born in 2010. Organic farming families from the area were worried about their cows eating grass that could have been contaminated with pesticides applied on neighbouring fields and carried by the wind,’ says mayor Ulrich Veith. Following the referendum, municipal regulations were changed to reflect the citizens’ will. Those who violate it have to pay fines ranging from 300 to 3,000 euros ($325 to $3,250).

See also: Little insects, big impact. How Indian farmers are improving productivity, and lives, by introducing bee hives to their fields.

Fragner and his fellow townspeople are convinced that there is only room for an agriculture that respects biodiversity in the future, and that bees are the essential indicator of that. ‘Without the work of pollinators, important parts of the food chain would disappear, and that would affect our diet,’ explains Francesco Panella, president of the National Union of Italian Beekeepers Associations (Unaapi). ‘Bees will ensure the production of food in the future, but we have to build more sustainable agricultural models.’ This is a path that the scientific community also supports: ‘Food has to be a synonym of life and not of dangerous substances,’ says Patrizia Genilini, oncologist and member of the International Society of Doctors for the Environment (ISDE Italy) pointing to studies about the effects of pesticides on human health. ‘For every dollar used to buy pesticides, two more are needed for externalized sanitary and social costs.’

Malles is on its way to a environmentally friendly agriculture – and others are beginning to follow suit. This year, France approved an amendment to its biodiversity law that aims to ban neonicotinoids; it will come into effect in 2018.

Read Johannes Fragner's story in comics:

Translation by Cecilia García.
Hunger4Bees is a project with the collaboration of Journalism Grant, Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Programme (IDR) from the European Centre of Journalism.