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How a website could stop billions of bees from dying

Previous studies have shown that bees in search of nectar-giving plants are attracted to odours, but take most of their cues from colours and petal shapes. Photo: ReutersPremium
Previous studies have shown that bees in search of nectar-giving plants are attracted to odours, but take most of their cues from colours and petal shapes. Photo: Reuters

A farmer who wants to apply pesticides can post a notice on the site a few days in advance. The system will send automatic alerts to all beekeepers within 7 kilometers, giving them time to relocate the hives or cover them

MOSCOW : For Ivan Gusak, bees are his retirement plan. For years he has been keeping them in Rostov, about a 15 hour drive south from Moscow, and had planned to live off the money he makes from selling the honey they produce.

But last month, his apiary was wiped out. He found out through the grapevine that a nearby farm had been applying pyrethroids to crops overnight. The chemical is legal for use in Russia, but can have devastating consequences if it’s misapplied.

Had the farmers given Gusak a warning, he could have taken action to shield his hives from the pesticide. But this didn’t happen.

“They told me they published a notice in the local newspaper, but it has a narrow circulation and I don’t receive it," he said in an interview. “I am turning 60 next year and I am left destitute." He said he’s sent the bodies of his dead bees for analysis, contacted the police, and is considering his legal options. 

Gusak is far from the only one to have suffered. About 30 regions of the country experienced the fatalities last summer, with about 80,000 colonies, representing about several billion insects, perishing, according to the Federal Beekeeping Research Center. The arrival of an agricultural blight that has already struck nations from Argentina to the United States received a raft of media attention. The damage was so severe beekeepers wrote to President Vladimir Putin asking for help. 

The bodies are already stacking up this year, mostly because of the misuse of pesticides. Making sure 2020 isn’t worse for such a vast country sounds like it needs regulation by government at the national level, or some serious tech disruption.

But in Russia, the reality is somewhat different. Regulatory quirks and an aversion to officialdom have paved the way for a company-led response. A publicity campaign and national website to tackle the problem launched last month by Veon Ltd.’s Beeline, the nation’s third-largest mobile-phone company, might do the trick.

To have so many deaths in that season is unusual, and is largely to do with changes in pesticide use accompanying a shift to rapeseed farming from buckwheat and sugar beet, said Alexey Nikolenko, a bee researcher at the Bashkortostan branch of the Russian Academy of Science. 

Though rapeseed is more profitable, it’s also more vulnerable to infestation. Pesticides may need to be applied several times per season, compared to perhaps once for traditional crops. While plenty of rules govern this — not when it’s windy, not at midday — they’re often not followed.

“These farmers, who often lack experience with rapeseed, abuse pesticides," Nikolenko said. “We never had bees dying during the summer season before."

For Gusak and beekeepers like him, a warning system that’s more user-friendly than a notice in an obscure publication would be a huge benefit. 

As with many of the world’s problems, the tech industry is disrupting the bee scene. Anyone interested in monitoring the health of a colony can now attach a chip to a bee’s fur, or install sensors in hives. 

But even in California, a relatively un-whizzy approach for helping shield the insects from agricultural chemicals has gained favor: there’s now a website where beekeepers can drop a pin on a map to register the location of their hives so they can be notified of planned spraying. A similar approach is available elsewhere, such as with Britain’s Bee Connected website, Ukraine’s Grand Express, as well as Beeline’s Save Bees. 

In the Golden State keepers may face fines for failing to register their hives, and the whole enterprise is the product of a public/private partnership. It’s harder to see how officials can get the same level of coordination between farmers and beekeepers that’s needed in Russia.

For a start, much of Russian beekeping is a hobby, or a side hustle that tends to operate on the black market, according to researcher Nikolenko. Those who register with authorities to get a veterinary passport can get the quality of their honey certified, but this also raises the prospect of regulatory probes and taxes. So even though the Ministry of Agriculture keeps keeps track of farmers and monitors which crops are being grown, it’s hard to see how a government-operated warning system, that needs the participation of both parties, would work.

And, the government doesn’t see that there’s much of a problem. Agriculture accounted for $25 billion of export revenue last year; the Minister for Agriculture, Dmitry Patrushev, said in October the damage from 2019’s mass bee deaths was “insignificant." Beekeepers estimated the damage at $28 million. 

Alexander Sergeev, a bee hobbyist in the Lipetsk region south of Moscow, wouldn’t agree. He lost 30 colonies last year because of pesticide spraying. So in July he built a website that lets both farmers and beekeepers register, while keeping their details private.  A farmer who wants to apply pesticides can post a notice on the site a few days in advance. The system will send automatic alerts to all beekeepers within 7 kilometers (4.5 miles), giving them time to relocate the hives or cover them. The platform maintains data confidentiality, without disclosing exact location and ownership of beehives and farmer fields.

“If we can't ban pesticides, we should at least create a proper warning system about their usage," he said in an interview. “Current warning methods — publishing a notice in a local newspaper or warning regional authorities, who would in turn warn beekeepers — often don't work."

He launched it for local use, and estimates that the majority of farmers and beekeepers have signed up with the former surpassing the latter. When bees die from pesticide poisoning, their owners can contact the police, or there can be legal action, and this creates a lot of expense and hassle. This website helps farmers avoid these costs, Sergeev said.

Alexander Korbut, vice president of the Russian Grain Union, a lobby group that represents agricultural producers, thinks the idea behind the website is a good one.

“Given that pollination is basic for crop yields, farmers are generally interested in beekeepers placing beehives near their fields,' he said. “Any idea which helps to improve the information flow makes sense."

Sergeev’s attempt to garner national attention for his project didn’t work. He said he attended a gathering of federal lawmakers investigating the deaths, and explained his system, but didn’t get anywhere.

Meanwhile, the nation’s media had taken notice, with the national press running lengthy articles. A spat developed between the economics and agricultural watchdog on who was responsible for controlling the application of pesticides. 

This drew the notice of Beeline, backed by billionaire Mikhail Fridman, to take a closer look at the issue. The company, which sports a black and yellow striped logo, is always looking at ways it can tackle socially important issues, helping to solve a problem involving bees was a natural fit, according to Irina Lebedeva, vice president in marketing. 

“Talking to the industry experts, we identified that the lack of timely communication between farmers and beekepers often inadvertently results in massive deaths of bees," she said. “There has been no countrywide warning system between them."

After conversations with keepers, farmers, officials and others, as well as people who had taken a stab at developing their own warning system, the company started developing its own platform. Once it came across Sergeev, it dropped its effort to develop his. He’s acting as a consultant to help Beeline develop Save Bees into a national product, and it launched on May 13.

Usage of the platform is free and not linked to using Beeline wireless services. The company has committed to invest in the platform and draw public attention to bee deaths over the next three years, at which point it would like to outsource the project.

“It’s good that a private company is creating a system to warn beekeepers as many of them are reluctant to register with the Agriculture Ministry," said Arnold Butov, head of Russia’s national union of beekeepers. “I hope it will help save the bees." 

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