Beekeeper Wu Chao-sheng recalled his shock when he went to tend to his bees on an unusually cold April day in 2007.
“I opened the hive, but only saw about two-thirds of the bees remaining,” the 50-year-old said. “My father and I thought they died from overwork.”
Wu, who has run the family business for about 30 years and is the president of the Taiwan Beekeepers Association, said he was not even among the hardest hit, with other bee farmers seeing their annual honey production decline by half that year.
Like Wu, many Taiwanese beekeepers remain haunted by the events of 2007, when millions of bees were reported to have mysteriously “disappeared” across the country.
Those worries were rekindled recently by reports of the rapidly diminishing bee population in the US.
According to a recent New York Times article, the US saw nearly half of its bee hives wiped out last year because of colony collapse disorder, with neonicotinoids — a type of pesticide that is also commonly used in Taiwan — named as the main culprit.
On Monday, the European Commission said it would impose a ban on three pesticides that are harmful to bees starting on Dec. 1.
On the surface, Taiwan’s bee population appears to be more stable than that in the US, but local scientists are worried about the potential threat to agriculture and the ecosystem from what lurks unseen — the lack of systematic data, scientific research and general knowledge about bees in the country.
They said the government has not paid enough attention to the insects’ plight and has been reluctant to study how the widespread use of pesticides has affected bee populations.
“The government does not care at all about the life and death of bees,” said Yang En-cheng (楊恩誠), an entomology professor at National Taiwan University.
At stake is the more than NT$50 billion (US$1.7 billion) in produce pollinated by bees — from melons, longans, apples and oranges to cruciferous vegetables like cabbage.
Yang believes that bees in Taiwan are starting to come under pressure from pesticides — specifically neonicotinoid overuse — but government officials contend that there is no direct evidence supporting the contention, citing statistics that show an increase in bee numbers.
According to the Council of Agriculture’s latest statistical yearbook, the number of bee hives in the nation has been on the rise since 2007, and increased 6 percent in 2011 to 103,870.
Honey production also soared 85 percent in 2011 to 15,089 tonnes, which Tsai Lung-tsung, the council’s point man on bees, said suggests that most of these natural pollinators are in good condition.
Scientists dismiss the figures as unreliable, or at least not reflective of the damage neonicotinoids are doing to local bees’ nervous systems, which Yang said he has observed in his research.
Chen Yu-wen (陳裕文), dean of the Department of Biotechnology and Animal Science at Yilan University, said that unlike in the US, where bees have died suddenly, the pesticide was affecting bees in Taiwan in a way that might actually be masking the problem.
“The bees seem drunk,” Chen said. “They don’t necessarily die from the pesticides, but certainly cannot navigate under their influence,” making them worthless as pollinators.
Chen was unable to provide an estimate of how many of the nation’s bees are punch-drunk because of the lack of data, but he is doing research, which he expects to complete in August, to try to pinpoint bee numbers and the environmental factors to which they are exposed.
The research will try to identify the amount of pesticides bees come in contact with and their possible effects by collecting the pollen attached to their bodies, Chen said.
He said he has also started a trial with the council to help beekeepers apply organic pesticides made of oxalic acid and thymol to improve bees’ living environment.
Chien Wu-yen, owner of the Move-Bee farm in New Taipei City (新北市), which has about 9 million bees, said his bee population has been relatively stable in the past few years.
However, there have been years when a third of his bees would disappear after being released to a farm that had just been sprayed with pesticides, or other factors.
“I don’t know if it is the exposure to pesticides or bad weather that the bees are more vulnerable to,” Chien said. “My experience suggests there can be big fluctuations in their production when either factor is an issue.”
Such confusion, or at least uncertainty, is at the heart of the scientists’ discontent toward the government, which they said does not seem to have a firm grasp of the situation.
The council does not keep scientific data on bees, and studies on the subject are the scientists’ sole responsibility, Yang said.
Tsai denied the charge, pointing to the government’s detailed figures, and said fluctuations in bee health was normal.
“Bees are just like troops. It’s normal that we have strong troops and occasionally weaker troops,” he said.
Tsai said there was no need to panic over suspected bee disappearance because bees are better tended to in Taiwan than in the US, where they are used on such an extensive scale that their conditions can easily escape the attention of beekeepers.
Other insects, such as butterflies, can also replace bees’ role in agriculture, Tsai said.
He added that the council was considering introducing foreign bees to breed better-quality offspring.
That initiative appears strange to Yang, who said the government was missing the point.
“Stronger bees do not solve the problem of pesticide-led intoxication and its impact on our ecosystem,” he said. “The government is not willing to acknowledge the significance of weaker bees because it does not care about the issue.”
For Wu and his fellow beekeepers, the debate between government authorities and academics only detracts from their daily struggle and finding the answers to what they describe as their constant tug-of-war with nature.
“So far, the industry has had to rely largely on traditional wisdom whenever a situation arises,” Wu said. “Hopefully beekeepers, scientists and government officials can establish a stronger partnership to address the issue more effectively.”