The flowers are there but where have all the Slovene bees gone?

In picture postcards from Slovenia, pretty painted beehives are a common motif. But Slovenia is worried about the occupants of those hives. They're disappearing amid a dispute over why and where they're going. The Slovenian Beekeepers' Association is warning between 50 and 70% of bee families are already gone from some parts of the country.

In Slovenia, one in every 250 residents keeps bees. But last year, beekeepers faced a serious blow. Vlado Avguštin, the Beekeepers' Association adviser on technology says that approximately 25% of the bees have disappeared and its causing great economic damage. The most affected region is Primorsko in the west and southwest, and the least Notranjsko in central Slovenia.

And what caused the depletion?

"This year's loss of bees is mostly the result of last year's mild winter, when varroa, a bee parasite developed. Other reasons can also be found in late and inappropriate extermination of the parasite, and insufficient and poor supply of the honeybee families in the summer time."

Next to varroa, a brown-reddish parasite, Avguštin adds that so called “winter bees” appeared, which play an important role in bee evolution and pollinating flowering plants in spring. Their immune system weakened, so all of them died later in autumn.

A unanimous approach to preserving the Carniola Bee, the indigenous Slovenian bee which is the world’s most wide-spread type of honeybee prized for its gentleness, was also urged. Aleš Gregorc from Agricultural Institute of Slovenia explains the importance of the bee:

“There are also other regions where they breed Carniolan Bees, but we have to take care about our population, and we have to take care about the varieties inside our population.”

In the summer, bees are often exposed to lack of water and nectar, which is why their immune system weakens. Other factors that contribute to the phenomenon are various viruses, pesticides, environmental pollution and climate change. Gregorc says there are many consequences:

“Not only in honey production, in apple and fruit production, but there are also questions about pollination, about pollination efficiency in nature. Pollination is probably one hundred times more important than, for example, honeybee products, like honey, propolis, royal jelly.”

The government has been dragging its feet for quite a few years now. The fact is that bee families are dying mostly from the use of deadly insecticides, which are still on the market. Avguštin, who also visits beekeepers on the ground, adds:

“We keep fruit growers informed about correct use of pesticides, and they inform us about eventual poisoning with phitopharmaceutical means. But we practically don’t have any instructions on how to act with dying bees, since experts are still wandering in the dark on what is causing this.”

Now, experts prompted the announcement of an investigation into the phenomenon, saying that they will try to get European funds for tackling the issue. However, Gregorc still believes that beekeepers carry most of the responsibility.

“The main importance of this problem, how to solve this problem, is breeding honeybees. We take care about breeding programmes, and the first emphasis is given to breed and reproduce honeybee colonies. We would like to encourage beekeepers to breed queens, to select their colonies.”

If the government continues to overlook the depletion issue, Slovenia’s beekeeping tradition is approaching a black scenario. No bees, no plants, no plants, no animals, no animals, no humans. Hopefully, the country, famous for its painted bee hives showing religious figures, scenes of bucolic bliss and illustrations of human weakness, will manage to prevent a break-down in the food-chain.