BERLIN // Beekeepers in Germany have resorted to stealing each other's hives in response to the mounting death of bee colonies in recent years. An estimated 20 per cent of Germany's one million managed honeybee colonies did not survive the winter. One of the main reasons is infestation by the Varroa destructor mite, a deadly parasite that has hit bee populations around the world in recent years, beekeepers say.
Gerhard Liebig, an expert on beekeeping at the University of Hohenheim, in southern Germany, said he has had 72 beehives stolen since 1993; the latest theft was in March, when two hives vanished. "The thefts are happening because people have been losing their hives to the Varroa mite. The stealing is at its worst after high-loss winters," said Mr Liebig, who manages 200 bee colonies at 20 locations in Stuttgart.
"I suspected I was being targeted by a repeat offender and I installed motion-sensor cameras. I caught him on camera and he turned himself in after the photos appeared in the press and people recognised him." Reported thefts of beehives almost doubled, to 306 in 2008 from 164 in 2007, and the figure was unchanged in 2009, according to Germany's leading insurer of beekeepers, Gaede & Glauerdt. There is little doubt that the thefts are being committed by beekeepers. "We assume that non-beekeepers wouldn't pack bees into the cars and drive off," Claudia Leiss, a bee insurer at Gaede & Glauerdt, said. "I certainly wouldn't. One should treat these animals with caution. Besides, the hives are really heavy." During the summer, a single hive can contain more than 40,000 bees.
The thefts highlight the mounting loss of managed populations of bees worldwide, which has led to concern about the effect on honey production and on the ecosystem. About one-third of the food humans consume is directly or indirectly dependent on bee pollination, including those produced in fruit orchards, melons, peppers, pumpkins, and raspberries, along with about 90 other kinds of fruit and vegetables. In addition, animal-feed cultivation relies heavily on bees.
In Germany, the hard-working insects are regarded as the third-most important livestock, after cows and pigs. The Varroa mite, one of several pests plaguing bees, attaches itself to the insects and their larvae and feeds on their lymph fluid, passing on diseases such as deformed wing virus and rendering them more vulnerable to disease. Beekeepers say their colonies are also weakened by the growing use of pesticides and the intensive farming of large-scale monocrops that deprives bees of varied nutrients.
"If bees only find pollen from rape and sunflowers, it's as damaging as if humans just eat bratwurst," said Jürgen Tautz, a bee researcher at the University of Würzburg. The threat to bees has been making headlines around the world since 2006, when there was an outcry in the United States over the mysterious disappearance of up to 70 per cent of bee populations there, a phenomenon described as colony collapse disorder. The bees were flying from their hives and not returning.
The absconding of bees is largely confined to the United States, where beekeepers are said to be to at fault because they have taken a rampantly commercial approach. "In the US, bees are just work objects, whereas German beekeepers really care for their hives and virtually treat the bees like pets," said Burkhard Schricker, a bee specialist at Berlin's Free University. "US beekeepers mainly hire their bees out for crop pollination. They start out in Florida and the southern states in the spring and drive their populations up in huge trucks, carrying hundreds of hives, stopping off at orchards along the way," Mr Schricker said.
"If you transport the bees for hours in trucks, they get shaken through, overheated and overexcited. It stresses them out so much that when the boxes are opened they can't wait to get away. And because they're disoriented, they often can't find their way back. It's mismanagement." In Germany, 95 per cent of beekeepers pursue the activity as a hobby, and only five per cent are professional. In the United States, it is the other way around, according to Mr Schricker.
Bee experts said the risk to bee populations can be reduced if they are properly cared for, which means ensuring they have enough food, regularly replacing the old queen bee with a young one and using new frames to stop disease from spreading. firstname.lastname@example.org