Native bee species could be wiped out

Native bee species could be ‘wiped out’ as Asian hornets spread across UK, conservationists warn

Experts sound alarm over increased frequency of sightings from Yorkshire to Cornwall

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Britain’s native bee species face being “wiped out” by a “highly aggressive” Asian hornet, conservationists have warned after the invasive insect was spotted in two locations at opposite ends of the country.

The honey bee-killing Asian hornet, which is believed to have first arrived in Europe on crates imported from China to France in 2004, has been confirmed at locations in Liskeard, Cornwall and Hull.

The creature, which is smaller than the UK’s native hornet, poses no greater risk to humans than the humble wasp, but feasts on honey bees and is capable of killing around 50 a day.

Paul Hetherington, of invertebrate conservation group Buglife, warned that the increased frequency of recent Asian hornet sightings was “very concerning”, both for the bees and people whose livelihoods depended on them.

“Our big worry is how they will impact on wild bees in this country,”

“The frequency of them being found is definitely on the increase. We have a few species that are now getting very rare, and each Asian hornet can eat 50 bees in a day. You could see species wiped out.”

During September the number of hornets in a nest can reach a peak, increasing the chances members of the public will spot them.

Asian hornets were first spotted in Britain in Gloucestershire in 2016. Subsequent sightings were reported in Devon, Cornwall and the Channel Islands. But the frequency and northerly spread of the insects has caused alarm.

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Mr Hetherington said the sighting of Asian hornets in east Yorkshire was particularly surprising, and that the insect may have been imported directly into the UK from abroad as it would struggle to establish itself that far north on its own.

He warned warmer temperatures in Britain due to climate change would “make the country more hospitable”, but said invasive species had long been a problem for the UK.

Until now, a single Asian hornet seen in Lancashire was the most northerly sighting of the insect in the UK.

Nicola Spence, deputy director for plant and bee health at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “These sightings in Liskeard and Hull underline the need to remain vigilant.

“I want to encourage people to look out for any Asian hornet nests and if you think you’ve spotted one, please report your sighting through the Asian hornet app or online.

“While the Asian Hornet poses no greater risk to human health than a bee, we recognise the damage they can cause to honey bee colonies.”

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Asian hornets have a dark brown or black velvety body, a dark abdomen and yellow tipped legs. They are described by the government-linked GB non-native species secretariat as a “highly aggressive predator of native insects”.

The government has promised to cover the cost of removing the insects from private land.

Asian hornets are not the only invasive species to colonise the UK. The horse-chestnut leaf miner arrived from Macedonia in the 1980s, joined around a decade later by the harlequin ladybird, a native of Japan.

A variety of non-native aquatic species have also settled in the UK, including the Eastern European demon shrimp and the zebra mussel, which arrived 200 years ago from the Caspian Sea

France Bans Popular Bee-Killing Pesticides Made by Bayer

France Bans Popular Bee-Killing Pesticides Made by Bayer

 

France Bans Popular Bee-Killing Pesticides Made by Bayer

A contentious French ban on a popular type of pesticide that is decimating bee populations goes into effect on September 1, as new findings are published showing bumblebees get addicted to the harmful chemical.

Neonicotinoids were once hailed as the future of pesticides. Billed in the 1990s as less harmful than traditional poisons, the lab-created, nicotine-based chemical produced by Bayer Monsanto and Syngenta gets absorbed by plants instead of sitting on the surface, and attacks the central nervous system of insects that land or prey upon them. They quickly became among the most popular pesticides, being applied to all manner of flowering crops, Channel News Asia noted.

A number of factors were initially fingered for the affliction, including fungi and viruses, but mounting evidence has proven that pesticides, and neonicotinoids in particular, are the major cause.

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Accordingly, France has moved to ban five neonicotinoid pesticides beginning September 1, giving France the strictest pesticide laws in the European Union, which has only banned three of the five for agricultural uses.

The bill on biodiversity regrowth, nature and landscapes, passed in July 2016, took 27 months of debate to get through the French Parliament, Journal de l’Environnement reported at the time, noting that environmentalists feared the two-year delay in implementing the pesticide ban was designed to give opponents the chance to water down the restrictions.

“At first, it appeared that the bees did avoid the food containing the pesticide,” said lead author Andres Arce, a researcher at Imperial College London. “However, as individual bees increasingly experience the treated food, they develop a preference for it.”

In other words, in the long run the pesticide doesn’t repulse insects: it attracts them, and then it kills them.

The new law only covers neonicotinoid use in agriculture, though, leaving environmentalists and bee fans concerned about its continued use in non-agricultural pest control, such as in flea collars for pet cats and dogs, or in household fly traps.

B&Q welcomes EU ban on pesticides

B&Q welcomes EU ban on pesticides

The European Union has voted to bring in a total ban on the outdoor use of three of the world’s most widely-used insecticides, due to the risk they pose to the bee population.

The ban on neonicotinoids, approved by EU member nations today, is expected to come into force by the end of this year and the chemicals will now only be allowed to be used in closed green houses.

Environmental organisation Friends of the Earth (FOE) has called the ban a “major victory for science, common sense and our under-threat bees”.

B&Q has also welcomed the decision, which comes as the widespread use of pesticides has been blamed for the plummeting numbers of pollinating insects, including bees, seen in recent years. In 2013 the EU issued a ban on the use of neonicotinoids on flowering crops that attract bees, such as oil seed rape and FOE describes “mounting scientific evidence of the threat these pesticides pose to our bees and other wildlife”.

In February, a major assessment carried out by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that the high risk to both wild bees and honeybees resulted from any outdoor use of neonicotinoids, because the pesticides contaminate soil and water. As a result, neonicotinoid pesticides can then appear in wildflowers or succeeding crops in fields, while a global study of honey samples even revealed contamination by neonicotinoids – sometimes at worrying “neuroactive levels”.

B&Q market director Steve Guy said of the EU’s decision today: “B&Q was the first UK retailer to introduce a total ban on plants grown using neonicotinoids, and we absolutely welcome this new EU legislation. Back in 2017 we worked in conjunction with our growers to come up with a plan which saw B&Q become the first major retailer to take this important step. We’ve seen a brilliant response from consumers since we made this announcement – people really seem to understand just how important it is to support bees in their nature habitat.”

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He added: “We believe this new legislation will make an enormous difference to the population of bees in the UK. The public can support them themselves by planting flowering pollinators in their gardens and using products which support nature.”

Emi Murphy, bee campaigner at FOE, which has been campaigning for tougher restrictions on neonicotinoids for a number of years, said: “This is a major victory for science, common sense and our under-threat bees. The evidence that neonicotinoid pesticides pose a threat to our bees is overwhelming.

“It’s great news that Michael Gove listened to the experts and backed the ban – he must now give farmers the support they need to grow food without bee-harming pesticides.

“Neonicotinoids are not the only threat bees face – ministers must urgently step up efforts to boost nature, protect wildlife-friendly habitats and tackle over reliance on pesticides in their post-Brexit farming policy.”

Lithuanian, the most conservative of all Indo-European languages, is riddled with references to bees.

Lithuanian, the most conservative of all Indo-European languages, is riddled with references to bees.

In mid-January, the snow made the little coastal town of Šventoji in north-west Lithuania feel like a film set. Restaurants, shops and wooden holiday cabins all sat silently with their lights off, waiting for the arrival of spring.

I found what I was looking for on the edge of the town, not far from the banks of the iced-over Šventoji river and within earshot of the Baltic Sea: Žemaitiu alka, a shrine constructed by the Lithuanian neo-pagan organisation Romuva. Atop a small hillock stood 12 tall, thin, slightly tapering wooden figures. The decorations are austere but illustrative: two finish in little curving horns; affixed to the top of another is an orb emitting metal rays. One is adorned with nothing but a simple octagon. I looked down to the words carved vertically into the base and read ‘Austėja’. Below it was the English word: ‘bees’.

This was not the first time I’d encountered references to bees in Lithuania. During previous visits, my Lithuanian friends had told me about the significance of bees to their culture.

Lithuanians don’t speak about bees grouping together in a colony like English-speakers do. Instead, the word for a human family (šeimas) is used. In the Lithuanian language, there are separate words for death depending on whether you’re talking about people or animals, but for bees – and only for bees – the former is used. And if you want to show a new-found Lithuanian pal what a good friend they are, you might please them by calling them bičiulis, a word roughly equivalent to ‘mate’, which has its root in bitė – bee. In Lithuania, it seems, a bee is like a good friend and a good friend is like a bee.

Seeing the shrine in Šventoji made me wonder: could all these references be explained by ancient Lithuanians worshipping bees as part of their pagan practices?

Lithuania has an extensive history of paganism. In fact, Lithuania was the last pagan state in Europe. Almost 1,000 years after the official conversion of the Roman Empire facilitated the gradual spread of Christianity, the Lithuanians continued to perform their ancient animist rituals and worship their gods in sacred groves. In the 12th Century, modern-day Estonia and Latvia were overrun and forcibly converted by crusaders, but the Lithuanians successfully resisted their attacks. Eventually, the state gave up paganism of its own accord: Grand Duke Jogaila converted to Catholicism in 1386 in order to marry the Queen of Poland.

This rich pagan history is understandably a source of fascination for modern Lithuanians – and many others besides. The problem is that few primary sources exist to tell us what Lithuanians believed before the arrival of Christianity. We can be sure that the god of thunder Perkūnas was of great importance as he is extensively documented in folklore and song, but most of the pantheon is based on guesswork. However, the Lithuanian language may provide – not proof, exactly, but clues, tantalising hints, about those gaps in the country’s past.

In Kaunas, Lithuania’s second-largest city, I spoke to Dalia Senvaitytė, a professor of cultural anthropology at Vytautas Magnus University. She was sceptical about my bee-worshipping theory, telling me that there may have been a bee goddess by the name of Austėja, but she’s attested in just one source: a 16th-Century book on traditional Lithuanian beliefs written by a Polish historian.

It’s more likely, she said, that these bee-related terms reflect the significance of bees in medieval Lithuania. Beekeeping, she explained “was regulated by community rules, as well as in special formal regulations”. Honey and beeswax were abundant and among the main exports, I learned, which is why its production was strictly controlled.

But the fact that these references to bees have been preserved over hundreds of years demonstrates something rather interesting about the Lithuanian language: according to the Lithuanian Quarterly Journal of Arts and Sciences, it’s the most conservative of all living Indo-European languages. While its grammar, vocabulary and characteristic sounds have changed over time, they’ve done so only very slowly. For this reason, the Lithuanian language is of enormous use to researchers trying to reconstruct Proto-Indo-European, the single language, spoken around four to five millennia ago, that was the progenitor of tongues as diverse as English, Armenian, Italian and Bengali.

All these languages are related, but profound sound shifts that have gradually taken place have made them distinct from one another. You’d need to be a language expert to see the connection between English ‘five’ and French cinq – let alone the word that Proto-Indo-Europeans are thought to have used, pénkʷe. However, that connection is slightly easier to make out from the Latvian word pieci, and no trouble at all with Lithuanian penki. This is why famous French linguist Antoine Meillet once declared that “anyone wishing to hear how Indo-Europeans spoke should come and listen to a Lithuanian peasant”.

Lines can be drawn to other ancient languages too, even those that are quite geographically distant. For example, the Lithuanian word for castle or fortress – pilis – is completely different from those used by its non-Baltic neighbours, but is recognisably similar to the Ancient Greek word for town, polis. Surprisingly, Lithuanian is also thought to be the closest surviving European relative to Sanskrit, the oldest written Indo-European language, which is still used in Hindu ceremonies.

This last detail has led to claims of similarities between Indian and ancient Baltic cultures. A Lithuanian friend, Dovilas Bukauskas, told me about an event organised by local pagans that he attended. It began with the blessing of a figure of a grass snake – a sacred animal in Baltic tradition – and ended with a Hindu chant.

I asked Senvaitytė about the word gyvatė. This means ‘snake’, but it shares the same root with gyvybė, which means ‘life’. The grass snake has long been a sacred animal in Lithuania, reverenced as a symbol of fertility and luck, partially for its ability to shed its skin. A coincidence? Perhaps, but Senvaitytė thinks in this case probably not.

The language may also have played a role in preserving traditions in a different way. After Grand Duke Jogaila took the Polish throne in 1386, Lithuania’s gentry increasingly adopted not only Catholicism, but also the Polish language. Meanwhile, rural Lithuanians were much slower to adopt Christianity, not least because it was almost always preached in Polish or Latin. Even once Christianity had taken hold, Lithuanians were reluctant to give up their animist traditions. Hundreds of years after the country had officially adopted Christianity, travellers through the Lithuanian countryside reported seeing people leave bowls of milk out for grass snakes, in the hope that the animals would befriend the community and bring good luck.

Similarly, bees and bee products seem to have retained importance, especially in folk medicine, for their perceived healing powers. Venom from a bee was used to treat viper bites, and one treatment for epilepsy apparently recommended drinking water with boiled dead bees. But only, of course, if the bees had died from natural causes.

But Lithuanian is no longer exclusively a rural language. The last century was a tumultuous one, bringing war, industrialisation and political change, and all of the country’s major cities now have majorities of Lithuanian-speakers. Following its accession to the EU in 2004, the country is now also increasingly integrated with Europe and the global market, which has led to the increasing presence of English-derived words, such as alternatyvus (alternative) and prioritetas (priority).

Given Lithuania’s troubled history, it’s in many ways amazing the language has survived to the present day. At its peak in the 14th Century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania stretched as far as the Black Sea, but in the centuries since, the country has several times disappeared from the map entirely.

It’s too simplistic to say that Lithuanian allows us to piece together the more mysterious stretches in its history, such as the early, pagan years in which I’m so interested. But the language acts a little like the amber that people on the eastern shores of the Baltic have traded since ancient times, preserving, almost intact, meanings and structures that time has long since worn away everywhere else.

And whether or not Austėja was really worshipped, she has certainly remained a prominent presence. Austėja remains consistently in the top 10 most popular girls names in Lithuania. It seems that, despite Lithuania’s inevitable cultural and linguistic evolution, the bee will always be held in high esteem.

Tales Of Bees And The Dearly Departed

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Back in the 19th century there was a tradition called “telling the bees” that people would do upon the death of someone who kept bees. It is exactly as it sounds. The bees had to be told of the loss.  It was an amazing show of respect for the little insects that are so important to human survival as they pollinate many of our food crops and provide us with their honey.

The tradition seems to have started in Europe and spread into North America along with immigrants. In some cases this “telling” was informal and in others there were codified ways for this to be done. Sometimes the hives would be draped with a black mourning covering and cakes and wine would be left for the bees to feast upon. In some areas a written invitation to the funeral would be tacked to the hive. In other places the custom was to have an appointed person visit the bees and issue the invitation verbally.

As far back as 1621 it was documented that when the master or mistress of the house died that the beehives must be moved to a new location lest the bees die. In other instances the hives were turned as the corpse was removed from the house.

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If these customs and a few others, such as moving the bees to a new hive they needed to be told in advance, were not observed it was believed that all of the bees in that hive would die. It was important to respect and honor the little creatures to retain their good will and work.

In some parts of the world the bee has been a symbol of immortality and resurrection.  In Celtic mythology the bee is the messenger between the spirit world and our own.

The fact is that bees have a history of showing up at funerals. In April of 1956 a beekeeper that had been noted for his loving devotion to his bees passed away in Adams, Massachusetts. When the mourners arrived at the graveside they found many thousands of bees swarming inside the tent that had been set up over the open grave. The bees remained quiet and still during the service. As soon as the coffin was lowered into the ground the bees began moving en masse to make a “beeline” back to the hives.Image

Back in 1934 a beekeeper in Shropshire, England had died and when the mourners arrived at the funeral they found masses of bees flying in and settling near the burial site.  They were all coming from the direction of the man’s farm and his hives. They clustered about on nearby gravestones. They stayed throughout the service and when the burial was complete they left in the direction they had come.

There have also been many tales of bees turning up at funerals of people who had nothing to do with bees, including an incident in which bees made their way into a church during a funeral in 1894. After the service the bees followed the procession to the cemetery. It is the many stories such as this has led people even now to wonder if there is some connection between bees and the dead.

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