Bee die-off in Argentina blamed on agrochemicals


Argentine beekeepers view their country’s intensive agrochemical use as deadly not only to bees, but also to biodiversity. (Photo courtesy of SADA)

On March 10, beekeeper Pablo Olmos paid a morning visit to the bee hives that he and a partner tend in the Traslasierra Valley, located in the central Argentine province of Córdoba. The hives occupy a portion of cattle pasture that the property’s owner allows Olmos to use in exchange for a share of the honey, an arrangement many of the country’s beekeepers maintain with landowners. Though his visit to check on the hives was routine, he was greeted by a sight he’d never seen in his 15 years as a honey producer: all of his bees were dead.

The sudden die-off was not an isolated incident. When he reported it to authorities, he learned that within a radius of some 30 kilometers (19 miles), more than 900 hives had been similarly affected. Producers estimate that some 70 million bees died, since each hive holds 60,000 to 90,000 bees.

Investigating the phenomenon, Argentina’s National Service of Agri-Food Health and Quality (Senasa) had not pinpointed the cause as of the end of April. But Olmos and other local beekeepers say they know the answer. “We are convinced that this is the result of some type of aerially applied pesticide, since in that period planes were seen in the area,” Olmos told EcoAméricas on April 20.

News of the die-off drew nationwide condemnation from honey producers. They have warned increasingly in recent years that bee populations—along with wildlife habitat and biodiversity generally—are being threatened by the expansion of the country’s large-scale model of monocrop farming, mainly of soy. That model is based on the heavy use of agrochemicals in conjunction with seeds genetically modified to tolerate them.

Shrinking industry

Underlying their concern is a dramatic contraction in Argentina’s once burgeoning honey industry—the Latin American leader, with output of 60,000 to 70,000 tons annually. According to government figures, there were 9,227 beekeepers tending 2,322,975 hives nationwide in February of this year. That compares to 33,781 and 4,151,178, respectively, in 2010, the official data shows.

“The bees are disappearing. Because their natural land, their forests, their flowers are disappearing,” the Argentine Society of Apiculturists (SADA) said in a press statement issued this month. “The countryside has become brown and submerged in poisons. The bees don’t have healthy food, and what they have is scarce, without variety and, in the majority of cases, polluted with agrochemicals.”

The SADA statement added: “The current agro-industrial model Argentina uses is sustained by genetically modified seeds and the use of millions of liters of chemical insecticide, herbicide and fungicide, which destroy flowers, ecosystems and the rest of the fruit and vegetable varieties, flora and forest fauna.”

SADA’s statement followed a tense meeting on March 27 of the National Apiculture Council, a unit of the Argentine Agroindustry Ministry in which a wide range of public and private honey-production stakeholders are represented. According to SADA, when one honey producer at the meeting raised the concern that Argentina’s agricultural model was killing bees and threatening biodiversity, Agroindustry Minister Luis Etchevehere responded: “How do you think you can live with it? Because this model is not going to change.”

Etchevere has neither confirmed nor denied that he made the remark, and his ministry did not respond to a request from EcoAméricas for comment. But on April 17, the government news agency Télam quoted an unnamed Agroindustry Ministry spokesman as saying that apiculture “can coexist perfectly well with the rest of the agricultural activities,” as long as farmers adopt “best practices” being promoted by the government.

The Télam dispatch came a day before SADA leaders appeared before the Argentine Senate’s Environment and Sustainable Development Commission to discuss the decline in bee populations. The commission’s president, Sen. Fernando Solanas, expressed strong support for the apiculturists’ position. “Without bees, there is no life,” he said. “And that is not just a problem involving soy, because today in Argentine agriculture there is a culture of fumigation that applies to all grains, fruits and vegetables.”

Solanas pledged to push legislation filed last year that would require that croplands include natural areas. Such action is viewed as long overdue by many experts, among them Gervasio Piñeiro, ecology professor at the University of Buenos Aires.

“The decline in the quantity of bees is a symptom of something more serious, which is the loss of biodiversity,” Piñeiro says. “Agricultural producers must understand that their activity, aside from producing soy, wheat or milk, causes a deterioration of ecosystem services that is so great today that it is necessary to add ever-increasing amounts of inputs to keep producing.”

He adds: “In Argentina, a producer that a few years ago spent US$30 per hectare on agrochemicals now spends more than $100 due to the weeds becoming resistant. If the producers don’t engage in agriculture that also produces bees, the problems will become their own because nobody will transport pollen to their crops, and yields will continue falling.”

Pattern revealed

Among the honey producers who have warned for years about the impacts of expansion of Argentina’s monocrop farming frontier is Carlos Muñoz, who tends 30 hives in the community of Guernica, 35 kilometers (22 miles) outside Buenos Aires. An agricultural engineer who specialized in remote sensing and geographical information systems, he used satellite images to study land-use change around honey-production sites during the period 2007-15. He then cross-referenced the data with figures on the honey-yield of hives.

“We showed that when agricultural surface increases, the yield of hives can decrease from 25% to 40%,” Muñoz says. “The bees look for flowers to feed on within [a radius] of 2,000 meters. If they don’t find a variety of plant species, it is difficult to achieve a good yield.”

Adds Muñoz: “This situation can change. In Ohio, in the United States, the opposite is occurring. The proximity [to hives] of agricultural areas increases the yield of hives. The difference is that there, buffer zones were established in which [farming does not occur]. In the Argentine countryside, all of the land is used for cultivation.”

- Daniel Gutman

Lucas Garibaldi
Institute of Natural Resource, Agroecology and Rural Development Research
National University of Río Negro
Bariloche, Rio Negro, Argentina
Tel: +(54 2944) 443-3186
Lucas Martínez
Argentine Society of Apiculturalists (SADA)
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Tel: +(54 11) 4334-8171
Carlos Muñoz
Agricultural engineer
Guernica, Buenos Aires
Tel: +(54 911) 6570-7156
Pablo Olmos
La Paz, Córdoba, Argentina
Tel: +(54 9266) 440-2355
Gervasio Piñeiro
Professor of Ecology
School of Agronomy
University of Buenos Aires
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Tel: +(54 11) 5287-0000