Last night, as I was sleeping
I dreamt – marvelous error -
That I had a beehive
here inside my heart
and the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from past mistakes.
from ‘Anoche cuando dormía’ by Antonio Machado
Sometimes something very small can make a very big difference. On the island of Paros we have been blessed with the presence of the miraculous honeybee, known in Greek as the melissa. Paros has had a living legacy of apiculture (beekeeping) for thousands of years. The unique and unusual collaboration between honeybees and humans has been the source of food, medicine, light (candles) and a link to the sacred world. Often in the remote places where hawks float, you can feel yourself walking in the footsteps of the ancients and there are moments when you sense awe at the Arcadian splendour and wonder at the infinity you can witness in the heart of a flower. The unforgettable aroma of wild thyme and wild flowers has entranced anyone who has come up to visit the place where I have been learning the mysteries of beekeeping.
I got involved with apiculture via the circuitous route of a love for flowers and plants and an interest in the intersection of the relationship between humans and animals. Other things that came into play were the news from America in 2006 of something called Colony Collapse Disorder – the mysterious disappearance and death of bees around the almond harvests in California – and the call to start supporting bees. The most important factor was the great luck of meeting Parian beekeeper Kostas Vionis, who is truly passionate about beekeeping. He has been a teacher, friend and mentor and a fine example of how to live life to the fullest. This story is about the majesty of the bee, how an effort to save palm trees is linked to the subsequent dying-off of bees in coastal areas of Paros and, most importantly, what we as a community can do to protect the exceptional natural environment that is our island home. In part I hope I can convey how important it is that we come to appreciate and deeply understand the intrinsic interdependence of our diverse ecosystems, and how often it seems we ignore obvious warning signs that we are damaging the earth.
The melissa has an honoured place in ancient Greek mythology. The honeybee has associations with the mother goddess, evolving in time to take on the role of the nymph called Melissa. She is able to transmute from bee to nymph and has been associated with Artemis, Aphrodite and sometimes Demeter – all various faces of matriarchy. The art of beekeeping is associated with Aristeus and the medicinal use of bees with Asclepius. Artemis has often been portrayed as a mystic bee-woman. The temple priestesses of the Ephesian mother goddess Artemis were known as the Melissae or bees, and the priests were known as Essenes or drones. In ‘When the Drummers were Women’ by Layne Redmond, the author tells us “These priestesses were often prophets or oracles who entered an ecstatic state that included ingesting honey. The Greek word for this state of transfigured consciousness is enthusiasmos – the root of our word enthusiasm.”
Zeus, king of the ancient gods, was raised on honey and goat’s milk by a nymph named Melissa and later transformed her into a beautiful bee. Honey was often left in ancient temples as an offering to the gods, something noted by Patrick Leigh Fermor as still taking place as late as the 1930s. In Paroikia, on the hill of Aghia Anna, is the ancient site of the god of medicine Asclepios which dates back to the 4th century BC, and the foundations of temples to the Pythian Apollo and Artemis. Archaeologist Yannos Kourayos has cited findings of ancient bee hives made first of wood and later of ceramic at the site.
Honey has healing properties, having natural antibacterial characteristics that have been used to treat burns, varicose veins, sinusitis, cataracts and a variety of other conditions. In the ancient world honey was associated with longevity and immortality, as ambrosia, the food of the gods. Other products from the hive such as pollen, propolis and royal jelly have antiviral, antifungal and antibacterial effects and all are viewed as ‘super foods’. Even the sting of the melissa is being used to treat arthritis and some types of psoriasis in apitherapy. Some historians have suggested apitherapy as a precursor to acupuncture and research is currently underway at several universities in the USA to investigate new treatments as new methods have been developed to gather bee venom without killing the bee. The revered poet and scholar of Paros who has written numerous books about the history, culture, geology and botany of the island, Christos Georgoussis, remembers his father being encouraged by a doctor to use the melissa sting to treat his arthritis. Beeswax is commonly used in the production of candles – just wander into any Greek Orthodox church and smell the perfume that wafts off the candles to get an exalted sense of the aroma inside the hive.
I spoke with Panayiotis Maroulis, award-winning organic beekeeper of Amorgos (www.amorgiano.gr), whose honey has won a gold medal two years running at the Biolmiel international organic honey competition. Panayiotis is also a painter of encaustic (wax art) portraits, some of which are in the permanent collection of the Benaki Museum. Encaustic painting is the process using hot beeswax by which the famous Fayoum mummy portraits were created. Stavros and Aleka Frantzis in Marpissa, recommended by the Hellenic Society for the Environment & Culture, produce traditional honey products including a variety of healing salves made from beeswax and mountain herbs. Seek out these and other local products and you will be rewarded with a sense not only of supporting traditional natural farming practices, but also with the myriad health benefits that bee products convey.
However, the most extraordinary – and critical – function of bees is the fact that they pollinate a huge proportion of the world’s food supply. Although figures vary – between 30% and 80% – even using the most conservative estimates, this is rather an enormous job! If we look at this from a micro as well as a macro perspective: it takes 12 bees an entire lifetime to make a single teaspoon of honey, and it would cost billions of dollars to pay for the work that the (‘worker’) honeybee accomplishes for us completely free of charge.
Since there have been ongoing losses of honeybees globally over recent years, the question is what would happen without them? We can find one answer in Sichuan, China where the poisoning of the fields with agrochemicals (pesticides) since the 1980s has annihilated honeybees and other natural pollinators. As a result, the ‘human bee’ has replaced the honeybee as thousands of villagers are now forced to go out in the fields and hand-pollinate every blossom on every fruit tree with tiny pollination brushes.
The United Nations Environment Programme is one of many groups around the world today investigating the phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD) when adult bees abandon the hive resulting in the collapse of the hive and the death of the bees remaining behind. Researchers have explored many possibilities to try and unravel a situation that has created successive losses of 30% each year in many countries including most of Europe. The first die-offs were noticed in France in 1996 and then later in Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Poland, England, Slovenia, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, USA, Brazil, Japan and India. It is thought that CCD is likely caused by the complex interaction of several factors – those being studied include: the systematic use of a class of insecticides chemically similar to nicotine, called neonicotinoids, the use of genetically modified seeds, pathogens like the Varroa virus, mites and other diseases which sometimes appear after synergistic encounters with agrochemicals that weaken immune systems and create a susceptibility to other fatal diseases. Other concerns include climate change, which in Greece includes desertification due to forest fires, and factors like air pollution, all of which disturb normal cycles of plants blooming. Also included on researchers lists are the large scale planting of monoculture crops, the curtailing of biodiversity of plants for bees to find nectar and pollen and finally the risks of cellular phones and antennas and their impact on the electromagnetic fields that bees use to orient themselves.
Scientific study after scientific study has pointed to the negative environmental impact associated with the use of the neonicotinoid insecticides which include clothianidin and imidacloprid, sold in Greece under brand names such as Dantop and Confidor Forte. They work by attacking the insect’s central nervous system and are particularly toxic to bees. Many environmental groups are expressing extreme concern over the widespread use of these chemicals, the EU has been considering a ban on them since 2007, and a number of European countries have already independently prohibited their use. Two very recent studies in France and the UK, published in the journal Science just last month, again highlight neonicotinoids as a likely contributory factor to CCD and show how the chemicals interfere with the bee’s navigation system, impairing its ability to find its way home to the hive. (Not surprisingly, the pesticide manufacturers say these studies are “seriously flawed.”)
The honeybee orients itself using a sun compass and it uses part of the ultraviolet light spectrum to see, enabling it to read images that we are incapable of seeing with our limited human vision – like hot spots on flowers that help direct the bee to sources of nectar and pollen. Using the sun as their radar, bees discovered long before we did that the world is round! Karl von Frisch won a Nobel Prize for figuring out how bees communicate using a complex waggle dance in which they tell other bees the direction and distance they need to fly to locate food. In an effort to explain how bees know (or learn) this dance language, scientists from many disciplines, including mathematics and quantum physics, like modern-day bee masters, are opening doors onto unseen worlds beyond our normal perception.
Bees can travel up to four or five kilometres from the hive foraging for food. The least we can do is make sure their food is not poisonous because of our shortsighted actions; in the final analysis it affects our food. One could say we are all on the same island. Yet, sadly, it appears we humans lack the ability to appreciate different perspectives, not only those of other people, but also by failing to understand the unique abilities of other species and how they experience the world. Despite the fact that we co-exist with so many amazing and fascinating forms of life, affording them protection is usually not at the top of our priority list.
Here on Paros, mostly in the south-west coastal area of the island so far, we have experienced a recent infestation of the red palm weevil, a pest which has already destroyed countless palm trees in other parts of Greece. In an effort to save the trees – which would on the surface appear to be an ecological act – the Ministry of Agriculture approved the use of neonicotinoids to combat weevil infestations for a fixed period of time (120 days) using very specific instructions which included removing the palm flower, only spraying in the heart centre of the trees and avoiding spraying in the morning if bees were pollinating in the area. Why was this necessary? Because these chemicals were not specifically designed for use on palm trees, special equipment is needed to treat large trees, and because it is an accepted fact that neonicotinoids are lethal to bees – it explicitly states that on the back of the packaging, albeit in extremely small print and in Greek.
On an island like Paros, where many people own holiday homes and pay workers (often non-Greek speaking) at minimum wage to maintain their gardens, the possibility of misuse of these substances was frighteningly easy. Those who were unaware of (or did not fully comprehend) the necessity of following the strict guidelines for their use assumed they could simply pour the chemicals around the root base of trees and spray the trunks, or else they failed to remove the flower of the palm, thus dispersing the poison through its pollen and, ironically, failing even to control the palm weevil problem. Unfortunately something was lost in translation even among the Greek speakers in terms of the risks. In a report published in October 2011 by the Federation of Greek Beekeepers’ Associations (OMSE) we learn that there have been numerous illegal uses of the neonicotinoids in Attica, the palm flowers were regularly not removed, large quantities were supplied to individuals who didn’t follow the instructions and that the result was catastrophic for bee colonies in the area. An additional concern is that the applications may not only affect bees but could possibly also have effects on human health. The UN Environmental Programme report described the neurotoxins clothianidin and imidacloprid as a risk to other pollinators, to fish, birds, earthworms and numerous animals including cats, rats and rabbits.
Back on Paros, bees began to die. Dimitris Bogiatzis, Secretary of the Paros Beekeepers Association, told me that Parian beekeepers located in the south west coastal region of the island suffered massive losses – about 500 hives were completely wiped out, while hives in other parts of the island were unaffected.
The Association sent samples of dead bees and pollen to Athenian laboratories to try to find out what was going on. They stated that at first the laboratories couldn’t get an accurate reading and weren’t able to offer conclusive results. However, as more bees died, one of the affected beekeepers wondered if the cause might be connected to the spraying of palms in the area. The lab equipment had to be recalibrated, but once this was done, the results seemed to clearly implicate neonicotinoids.
Last September beekeeper Antonis Skiadas lost 90 hives in Voutakos in a single week. His primary concern now is to ensure no more of these insecticides get used here and that no one else has to experience such catastrophic losses. ”One person builds,” he said, “and another destroys. We are in danger of losing the bees. We can’t afford to fight amongst ourselves.”
At the time this was happening he spoke with bee organisations on many islands. Those with substantial tourism were the ones hardest hit because of their tendency to plant palms – that universal symbol of paradise. Unfortunately because many municipalities all over Greece had planted palms, the problem was extensive. In the Attica area alone there was a loss of over 6,000 hives, Professor Paschalis Harizanis of the Agricultural University of Athens apiculture laboratory told me. His photographs of affected hives are like carbon copies of the photographs we have of dead Parian bees.
OMSE sent us some of their research documentation on the red palm weevil, the use of neonicotinoids to combat them and the subsequent devastation of nearby hives, plus a report by agronomist-entomologist Dimitris Kontodimas of the Benaki Phytopathological Institute in Athens who says that the weevil infestation is primarily a question of proper management and lists several solutions besides chemicals which can be employed including tree surgery, thermal microwave and biological treatments.
Other islands like Crete and Rhodes were hard hit, though some islands seem to have been spared. In Naxos, two beekeepers told me the island had not experienced the problem, and in Amorgos beekeeper Panayiotis Maroulis said he believes they were spared both the tree and bee issue as there had not been a widespread planting of palm trees there. Greek Euro MP and environmentalist Kriton Arsenis has publicly questioned the planting of so many palms which are not indigenous to the area and more than one plant expert on Paros told me they thought there is a good chance we will eventually lose all of our palms as the infestations are so hard to detect until it is too late and replacing the larger trees is prohibitively expensive at several thousand euros apiece.
Angeliki Skiada had just started keeping bees on her family land in Aspries near Aghios Arsenios. Between September and December 2011, 27 of her hives were annihilated, leaving only one colony alive. “Is it safe now for me to start again on my land?,” she asks, “and if not, when will it be safe?”
No one seems to be offering much information about this, nor does there seem to be any possibility of compensation. Dr James Frazier, professor of entomology at Penn State University, has cited the possibility of long-term soil contamination from clothianidin which has a half-life of up to 19 years depending on the type of soil. (Half-life means the amount of time it takes for half of the chemical to degrade.)
Several of the people to whom I spoke emphasised that if the pesticides had been used correctly – i.e. exactly according to the instructions – this situation would not have arisen. But, given all the research which points to the slow poisoning effect of these chemicals on our environment, wouldn’t it be safer to err on the side of caution and choose an alternative solution? Indeed, the Ministry of Agriculture has now withdrawn its exceptional approval of the use of neonicotinoids for the purpose of wiping out the palm weevil and stiff penalties can be imposed on anyone caught using them for this purpose, the Paros Beekeepers Association told me. However, they are still authorised – and widely used – against common pests that attack apples, pears, peaches, nectarines and potatoes.
There is a phenomenon known as drift in chemical parlance where chemical particles are carried by the wind into areas they were not intended to affect. This can result in bees receiving lighter doses that are not fatal, but that cause damage to their navigational and immune systems. Scientist Dr Fani Hatjina of the Hellenic Institute of Apiculture has linked the synergistic effect of lower grade encounters with these toxins as opening the door to other diseases, with the result that the hive may become too weak to sustain itself. Contaminated pollen and nectar stored at the hive and consumed later can also cause delayed effects.
Dr Hatjina believes that colony collapse disorder has manifested itself differently here in Greece as opposed to the USA. She suggested that if you have already treated your palms, in addition to removing the palm flowers, you should also cut the flowers around the tree to avoid poisoning more bees. She ends a recent research paper with the statement “Let’s hope that 2012 will be the year in which neonicotinoids are banned in Greece!”
Given the concerns about these chemicals it seems astonishing that they are still in use anywhere, but let’s remember that they earn massive profits for the manufacturers. If, finally, a worldwide ban is achieved, we must be ever vigilant to ensure they are not simply replaced with some other brand-new pesticide, the effect of which could be even more devastating to the environment.
Kostantinos Vordakis – the person you were directed to contact in the Municipality’s press release regarding the palm weevil issue that was printed in the Winter 2012 edition of Paros Life & Naxos Life – besides being an agronomist and plant health inspector responsible for Paros, Naxos and Santorini, is also a biological beekeeper. He told me he had made several trips to Paros to visit people with a large number of palms to voice his concern over the correct usage of the chemicals. I asked him, as there is such an established link to bee fatalities around the globe, why the government would even consider this option. He replied that in his opinion it was likely there were several factors involved in the loss of the bees on Paros, rather than a single cause, but that in any case there was also a biological choice (entomopathogenic nematodes – a parasitic worm) suggested, though it was more expensive than the chemicals.
Deputy Mayor Panayiotis Koutsourakis at the town hall told me that the municipality now only uses this biological method, and favours planting maritime pines (thalassia pevki or Pinus maritima) and other indigenous trees instead of palms.
I went to see organic farmer Theodoros Oikonomou who explained two biological solutions available from the company Bio-insecta (www.bio-insecta.gr) – the first using the parasitic worm mentioned earlier which acts as a preventative and, it’s claimed, has 98% effectiveness. Most places licensed to sell pesticides on Paros also carry this product. He also mentioned a soap and water trap that uses the pheromone of the male palm weevil to attract the female. This should only be used, though, if you already have the problem – if it is used preventatively, it will attract the weevils to your trees!
Another biological solution using an electrostatic membrane is available from Timoleon Venetsianos of Biotev (www.bio-tev.gr) at an estimated cost of between 40-80 euros per tree. And OMSE sent us information about the microwave-emitting device available from EcoPalm (www.ecopalm.it) which claims an effectiveness rate of 99.99% and can also be used as a preventive measure.
Many people would like to see neonicotinoids removed entirely from the shelves of stores. Interestingly, simply by talking with people at various plant centres around the island, some have, thankfully, chosen to do just that. However, it’s highly likely that people still have some unused pesticide at home, have no idea that they are no longer permitted to use it, and may still be unaware of the dangers and risks involved. Hopefully, as the issue becomes more widely publicised and understood, more individuals will choose to try the non-chemical options and will take care to properly dispose of any unused neonicotinoids.
I asked Yiannis Drakoulakos of the environmental department at the Paros Municipality how that should be done and he told me that chemicals should be brought to the sanitary waste landfill (XYTA) at Aghios Haralambos where they collect hazardous materials for disposal. You can contact him for further information on 22843-60164 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Yiannis also told me he is currently looking into the possibility of soil contamination, and that the municipality is working together with Yiannis Sarris at the Dasarcheio (Forestry Department) to plant indigenous (and bee-friendly) trees and to encourage these to be made available under the reforestation scheme in which trees are given away free of charge every year.
It is hard to fully appreciate how much love and effort is required to be a beekeeper. I feel great compassion for all those who went to the hives they care for and found a pile of tiny blackened corpses. We have many elders who tend hives – we need to learn from them and create a new generation with the same passion. Kostas Vionis, my beekeeper mentor, often talks of the importance of growing plants that can augment the sources of pollen and nectar. He is always reminding me that the entire climate has changed and that crops that once grew on Paros would be impossible to grow today. “In the time of the grandfathers, everything was wild, the aroma of the honey was richer and the bees were stronger, no one needed to feed the melissa and the olive trees were seven metres tall.” In this spirit he is filled with enthusiasmos, always gathering seeds to grow plants that the melissa loves, encouraging others to stop poisoning our land and to learn to love the bees.
Honeybees have one of the most complex societies in the animal kingdom. The entire social structure of the hive is made collectively by workers in order to sustain the life of the queen and the hive as a whole. The book 'Honeybee Democracy' by Tom Seeley explores the swarm intelligence that bees use to make collective decisions when trying to find a new home and how this compares to the democratic decision-making that humans use. In both systems there is a competition among individual options until enough support is gathered to accumulate critical mass. “Ants similarly organise themselves to make collective decisions. Consistencies like these indicate that there are general principles of organisation for building groups far smarter than the smartest individuals in them. Indeed, humans can learn much about democratic decision-making by looking at bees," Seeley says.
The bees still have lessons to teach us. I hope we are listening.
“In the end, our society will be defined not only by what we create, but by what we refuse to destroy.” (John C. Sawhill president of The Nature Conservancy from 1990-2000)
10 THINGS YOU CAN DO
1. Seek out and support local honey and bee products. For example: Stavros and Aleka Frantzis in Marpissa, Paros (tel: 22840-42937, 697-856-3178); Kostas Vionis (tel: 22840-21614; Antonis Skiadas (tel: 22840-91240 ). Let us know of others you find and we’ll publish the details.
2. Become a beekeeper or invite a beekeeper to keep bees on your land.
3. Grow pollen- and nectar-rich plants, particularly those that continue flowering in winter (see list below).
4. Sign the petition to ban neonicotinoids at Avaaz.
5. Write to your municipality, to environmental groups, MPs, Euro MPs and ask them what they are doing about banning neonicotinoids.
6. Avoid pesticide use, especially if an alternative biological solution exists. If you do use them, make sure you FULLY understand the instructions for their proper usage.
7. For treating palms specifically, investigate alternative treatments:
This is an abbreviated version of the list available from OMSE, selecting some of the key plants available and suitable for the Cycladic island climate. Additional plants are being researched and a more comprehensive list will be available from Paros Life & Naxos Life at a later date. Some of these plants can be obtained free of charge from the Dasarcheio (Forestry Department) in Paroikia (Ioannis Sarris 22840-24906) and the Dassonomeio in Chora Naxos (Giorgos Sergis 22850-25089.) These government programmes were set up in order to encourage reforestation on the islands, but sadly are under threat of closure in the current economic crisis. Please support them too in any way you can.
Acknowledgement: This article would not have been possible without the incredible patience of the Antonopoulos family at Coffeetime, Logaras, Paros. Thank you Constantinos, Anezina, Anna and Dimitris.>