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The disappearance of bees from the Beni Chougrane mountains

“It’s the first time that human civilization risks collapse. We may disappear because of bees”. Professor Paul R. Erlich, head of the Conservation biology center at Stanford University.

Si Messaoud could not hide his dismay when checking, on this Wednesday in last February and as he used to, the hives in the Fergoug forest which covers an area of 1442 hectares of the Beni Chougrane mountains, in Mascara (360 km to the North-west of Algiers).  

“Today, again, the bees have disappeared from another hive. In total, I’ve lost 40 hives since September 2022. I am honestly dejected that I couldn’t do anything to save my hives”, says with muffled words Si Messaoud, 54, a man known for his calm and patience. 

He adds while covering the hive which was definitely abandoned by the bees: “I don’t think this season will be any different from the previous two, lots of bees abandon their cells or die suddenly. The most worrying thing is that the disappearance of bees is coinciding with the rising number of wasps, which came to eliminate the remaining bees of beekeepers or forest bees that resisted the cold and drought, waxworms and non authorized hunters who gather wild honey”. 

The fact is that the consequences of the disappearance of bees, or their dwindling numbers, are way more serious than the simple absence of honey, because they threaten the mere existence of Man. 

First of all, the United Nations Organizations for Food and Agriculture (FAO) has announced, during World Bee Day on May 20, 2019 in Rome that “the global decline in bee populations constitutes a serious threat to a large number of plants that are essential to the wellbeing of human beings and their livelihood”. 

It also underlined that “the number of bees and other pollinators is declining considerably in many many regions of the world, this is largely due to intensive agricultural practices, monocultures and the excessive use of agrochemical products, as well as the rising temperatures due to climate change”. 

The first disappearance of bees was recorded in 2006 in the United Stats, where beekeepers were surprised by the absence of worker bees in hives despite the healthy presence of the queen and larva as well as some of the most vulnerable new worker bees. That’s what was called “The Colony Collapse Disorder”. 

In 2007, the bee collapse phenomenon reached many countries in the world, including China, South America and some European countries. Even more worrying: on June 9, 2020, in the province of Medemurig in Croatia, according to Croatian newspaper Jutarnji Iist, beekeepers were surprised by the death of over 60 million bees, the equivalent of 1150 hives, which pushed the president of the province to decree “a state of natural catastrophe” on June 15, 2020.

Here, in the mountains of Beni Chegrane in Mascara, not only have beekeepers been affected by the disappearance of bees (in the mountains stretching over a 1618 km² area and covering 32% of the wilaya’s territory), but even farmers, and especially citrus, apple and almond producers, have registered a considerable decline in production in recent years. 

The causes lie in the decline in rainfall and the lack in underground waters (irrigation waters) as well as the improper pollination of trees due to the decline in pollinator insects including bees, which are the main pollinators of many fruit trees and herbs. 

The official figures presented by the Wali of Mascara on December 28, 2022, show a production of 3200 quintals of honey, with a yearly average of 1066 quintals, a 28,93% decline from the 1500 quintals of honey produced in 2018.

Not far from the apiary of Si Messaoud, beekeepers meet daily at the cafeteria of El Hadj Ahmed facing the building of APC Mamounia. Discussions are mainly about the insufficient rains and the migration of bees, the difficulties faced in finding swarms, as well as their broken hopes. One of the colleagues shares the loss of 50 cells in less than two months because of wasps and waxworms. 

Buying a four frame beehive from state institutions such as those of forests and agriculture costs 3500 dinars. From beekeepers, the price jumps to 11 500 dinars, of which 3500 dinars represent the price of the cell and 8000 dinars the equivalent of four frames of bees. 

With a mixed tone of hope and regret, Abdelkader, who lost most of his hives, says while drinking tea: “No beekeeper could stand on their feet after the disappearance of their bees, but there’s still a hope of compensating these losses in the case of rain at the end of spring to provide queens with their needs in nectar and pollen in order to reproduce and form new swarms”. 

What about wild bees, those that were abundant in the Fergoug forest? Where did they go? Abderrahmane, 65, lives off selling Fergoug honey, the region’s most expensive kind because of its wild thyme and lavender scented taste, the price of which can reach 6000 dinars. 

Abderrahmane answers without hesitating: “Finding hives in the forest is no longer as easy. Also, gathering a few kilograms of forest honey takes more effort and time. I think that the lack of nutrition sources in the forest due to the lack of rain and the degradation of the environment because of pollution are among the main causes of the disappearance of wild swarms and therefore the gathering of honey which is the revenue source of many families in the region will decline”. 

Many beekeepers accuse wild honey gatherers, who they hold responsible for the disappearance of bees from the Fergoug forest. The latter drain all the honey without leaving enough for the bees to feed themselves during summer and feed their larva in winter which is the hardest season of the year. 

Si Messaoud and his colleagues are calling for help to follow hives of forest bees. He explains that “a lot of wild honey gatherers do not care about the fate of bees and instead of renovating hives, they leave them destroyed, which accelerates their collapse. Unfortunately, because of these individuals, the number of bees is declining in the forest”. 

During our investigation, by accompanying those who know wild bee hunters in the Fergoug forest which covers the Beni Chegrane mountains known for their cliffs and dangerous landform, we were able to notice the “greed” of some who gather all the honey under the pretext that it is only available in small quantities, as well as the lack of interest for the state of the hives, left to the mercy of predator insects, including hornets which eat bee larva and destroy the whole swarm. 

The Fergoug forest, the water sources of which were dried up due to the destruction of underground water, has become a landfill where all sorts of garbage is thrown, including the residues of poultry slaughter which provide wasps with a better atmosphere to develop and hurt the environment and public health. 

Green areas are also confronted with the ground erosion phenomenon which accelerated desertification. Many studies (analysis and tracking of desertification in the north of Algeria) led by researchers from the university of Mascara, consider the mountains of Beni Chougrane which embrace the Fergoug forest to be one of the most vulnerable regions facing desertification in the north of Algeria. It is the natural factor that caused the disappearance of many herbs, particularly flowering ones on which wild bees depend for their food. 

Dr. Souidi, a former researcher at the university of Mascara, considers that the decline in vegetal biodiversity of the forest and the decrease in flowering plants which are a source of nectar and pollen – due to climate change – is also one of the main factors of the collapse of bees. 

To identify the different factors aggravating this phenomenon, the university researcher sees it necessary to do “an in-depth study by specialists and researchers by answering questions with constant remarks, especially when it comes to the kind and intensity of hornets and the period during which they are active, the kind of pesticides used as well as the weeds and their harmfulness”. 

This could also, according to her, participate in determining the period during which climate change started affecting the region, through the recorded rainfall, temperatures, cold and frost. 

She also underlined the importance of determining the responsibility of humans, the type of bees imported from other regions and their potential to adapt to nature and the region, the kind of bees that live in the forest as well as the flowering plants they feed upon and the influence of the current natural factors… There are, according to the expert, many questions to be asked and causes to be identified by researchers in order to find solutions to reduce the phenomenon. 

While beekeepers are suffering from the phenomenon of the collapse and disappearance of bees, and in the absence of a scientific explanation, many specialists refuse to call it “the disappearance of bees from the Fergoug forest” due to the “absence of concrete proof and in-depth studies”. 

“I agree with you when you use the word “disappearance” of the bees from the Fergoug forest, I think we should first cooperate with the agricultural services and the beekeepers of the region and work on an investigation on the ground concerning the subject you brought to my attention”. That is what an executive from the conservation of forests told us during our brief encounter on the subject of bee collapse, on the morning of Sunday, December 25, 2022.

Official data that we obtained indicates that forest services have previously supported, as part of a program in 2018, a certain number of beekeepers in the region with a few hundred hives from a total of 3390 hives distributed throughout the whole wilaya over a forest area of 90 223 hectares. 

The same source revealed that forest services intend to launch a similar operation by distributing hives to beekeepers all over the wilaya, which will allow those who lost their hives to relaunch their activity and to increase the production of various apriarian products, honey and royal jelly. This announcement has not, as of May 2023, been followed with acts. 

It is worth remembering that a comparable process was launched in October 2020 by the agricultural services which were selling hundreds of hives to dozens of beekeepers in the region for 3500 dinars, but from a total of 3155 hives sold in the wilaya, beekeepers have noticed that many hives imported from the central regions of the country by the agricultural services did not resist more than two months, after they recorded their collapse and the disappearance of others. 

This is due to, according to some specialized beekeepers, the fact that this kind of bees is not used to vicious hornets that ravage the mountains of Beni Chougrane and which quickly pushed the bees to migrate and look for a safe place. 

The president of the Association of the beekeepers of Mascara, Bosla Abdelkader, explained over the phone: “In addition to hornets, I think that bees do not adapt to the pastures of the Beni Chougrane mountains where there are few nutritive herbs and water, and this is why they collapse quickly”. 

Beekeepers who regularly lose their hives and live with the disappearance of wild bees from the Fergoug forest due to known or unknown factors, sound the alarm about this phenomenon. They demand that their worries be taken seriously, especially that they are seeing their production in honey and bees in considerable decline for the fourth year in a row. 

Many observers and beekeepers also suggest planting trees upon which bees can feed, such as Eucalyptus which flourishes twice per year and which could provide an adequate nourishment to bees that are hungry and tired from struggling against different predators to survive. 

“This needs, according to them, a study and funds that cannot be provided at the moment”. This operation is even more necessary today to mitigate this syndrome and therefore to protect human civilization from the threat of collapse. 

The former general director of FAO, Jose Grazianoda Silva, had warned that “bees are greatly at risk due to the combined effects of climate change, intense agriculture and the use of pesticides, the loss of biodiversity and pollution. This while the absence of bees and other pollinators will eliminate crops that depend on pollination, including coffee, apples, almonds, tomatoes and cocoa”. 

He also called on governments to transition to durable and more appropriate policies and food systems.