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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Farmers stung by bee shortage

A ban on queen imports and the rise of a parasite are hurting crop production


Staff writer

It's high season for planting crops, but some farmers are facing an unexpected difficulty this year as they busily go about their work.

News photo
Bee careful: Jun Nakamura, professor and director of the Honeybee Science Research Center, opens a beehive at the Tamagawa University campus in late March. SATOKO KAWSAKI PHOTO

Honeybees, those indispensable pollinators, are fewer in number this year because of a combination of factors, including bee-weakening mites and the halt in queen bee imports from Australia.

The shortage is raising their prices, which is starting to affect the production costs for some farmers, who have called on the government to help secure bees and sell their produce.

Experts say what is happening here is not equal to the so-called colony collapse disorder that has struck the United States, where a significant number of honeybees have disappeared from colonies over the past few years. But they do agree that there is a crisis.

"Many beekeepers, even those who have been in the industry for several decades, are saying that they've never experienced a shortage as serious as this before," said Yukiyoshi Kaneko, president of Maruto Tokai Shoji Co. a honeybee trader in Aichi Prefecture who provides honeybees to farmers solely for use in pollination.

According to an emergency survey conducted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries earlier this month, as of April 10, 21 prefectures' strawberry, watermelon, melon and cherry farmers were suffering from bee shortages. To compensate, some farmers have introduced another kind of bee, while others have carried out pollination by hand, they said.

The ministry asked municipal governments and agricultural cooperatives to help farmers procure bees from local beekeepers.

News photo
Birth defect: This honeybee's right wing was damaged by a parasite when it was in the larval stage. SATOKO KAWSAKI PHOTO

The alert apparently helped. As of April 21, the number of prefectures whose farmers still claim a shortage was down to seven: Aomori, Yamagata, Ibaraki, Kanagawa, Shiga, Tottori and Kumamoto. They mainly produce watermelons, melons, eggplants and pumpkins, the ministry report said.

Farm ministry official Seiji Tanaka commented that the bee shortage alone will not influence product prices, which are determined by many other factors. But he said that some farmers may suffer higher production costs because they have been forced to buy bees at as much as a 50 percent premium.

Industry observers say signs of an impending honeybee shortage were evident last fall.

Over the past few years, a mite that weakens honeybees has become pesticide-resistant.

Many colonies were also damaged last summer after the honeybees were exposed to pesticides for rice in northern Japan, where the climate is best for honeybees to spend the summer before their breeding season ends.

But the biggest reason behind the shortage, experts agree, is the halt of queen bee imports from Australia since November 2007, after honeybees there were found to have been affected by the nosema parasite.

Trade statistics show that before the ban some 10,450 queen bees were imported from Australia, the lone source of queen bee imports to Japan.

"Beekeepers in the pollination industry rely on the imported queen bees," said Jun Nakamura, professor and director of the Honeybee Science Research Center at Tamagawa University in Tokyo.

To understand this impact requires some background explanation.

Bees in the wild breed between spring and summer, when a queen lays eggs every day while the worker bees gather pollen to feed the young.

But the bees are also in high demand from autumn to winter by farmers who produce strawberries in greenhouses.

Nakamura said beekeepers usually divide the colonies in autumn to increase the number of bees that can start working with strawberries.

Each colony can only host one queen bee. In order to increase the number of bees, beekeepers usually split the colony and introduce a new queen, which will start laying eggs. The queens from Australia are active because in the Southern Hemisphere, the weather is warm when Japan is cold.

But without the active queen bees from Australia, the beekeepers could not increase the number of bees last year as planned, Nakamura explained.

This shortage forced bees, many already weakened, to overwork.

On top of this, working in greenhouses with only one type of flower is not an ideal situation for bees, according to Kiyoshi Kimura, senior researcher at the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science.

"The bees are really forced to work in a stressful environment," Kimura said.

"Honeybees are good at balancing themselves for survival, but when humans come in and affect them, they can lose their balance right away," he said.

In the U.S., the exact cause of colony collapse disorder is still unknown, but theories include mites, emerging diseases, pesticide poisoning and stress from migrating long distances.

While some of the theories correspond to what is being observed here, both Kimura and Nakamura said the situation cannot be called CCD.

Both pointed out that the definition of "sudden disappearance" was unclear, but Japanese beekeepers have an advantage over their American counterparts. Because the number of colonies they keep are much smaller, they can check the colonies regularly and can quickly spot if something is wrong.

Nakamura of Tamagawa University said that because the cause of the shortage is obvious here, the problem may be resolved to a certain extent by dealing with each issue.

Tanaka of the agriculture ministry said the government will continue to keep track of the pollinating bee shortage until the end of May, when the peak of the pollination season ends.

But whether Australian queens will return to Japan is unclear, Tanaka said. As an alternative, the government is working with Argentina to possibly import their queen bees, but the deal has yet to be finalized, he said.



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