When the “poison” infiltrates a hive, Gildardo Urrego does not have enough of his two hands to evacuate the dead bees. A disaster that beekeepers and experts attribute to the massive use of pesticides accompanying the boom in agro-industry in Colombia.
Hundreds of swarms have been decimated in recent years in this country, where official studies point to fipronil, an agrotoxic banned in Europe and for controlled use in China, as well as in the United States.
Near the apiary of Gildardo Urrego, in the department of Antioquia (north-west), there is an orchard of passion fruit. “Agrochemicals may not have been used properly there,” says the 38-year-old beekeeper.
This is the second time he has seen his bees die: 10 of his 19 swarms died in 2019 and already four this year, each with some 50,000 insects.
All over the world, in the United States, Canada, Uruguay, France, Russia and even Australia, beekeepers have denounced over the past ten years an abnormal mortality caused by pesticides.
Mr. Urrego has not identified the product that is decimating his hives. But 280 km to the south, in the department of Quindio, Abdon Salazar does not hesitate to accuse fipronil.
“Over the past two years, we can estimate that more than 80 million bees have died,” laments this owner of a beekeeping business. Behind him roar 300 beehives.
Like so many other beekeepers in one of the most bio-diverse countries on the planet, he is forced to regularly clear mountains of dead insects.
In the surroundings, vast avocado and citrus groves colonize the countryside, boosted by fipronil.
This pesticide is highly toxic to bees. Its use has been banned by the European Union (EU) in corn and sunflower fields, which these insects are fond of. Authorizations for other crops have not been renewed since 2017.
In Quindio, the destruction of apiaries coincides with the development of monocultures, according to Faber Sabogal, president of the association of beekeepers Asoproabejas.
Five multinationals bought land there between 2016 and 2019 to take advantage of the avocado boom, according to local authorities.
Exports jumped from 1.7 tonnes in 2014 to 44.5 tonnes in 2019 and the government is delighted that Colombia has become the number one supplier to Europe.
But, according to Mr. Sabogal, avocado trees are very vulnerable to pests and therefore require intensive application.
The bees are sprayed with fipronil when they fly among the trees and “bring this poison that kills everything to the hive,” laments Mr. Salazar.
Beekeepers have filmed their deaths and warned of a danger that threatens far more than honey production: bees are a crucial pollinator for many wild plants and for 35% of agricultural crops.
Studies compiled by the EU have warned of their population decline globally.
Prohibition under debate
Last year, the Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA) was informed by beekeepers of 256 beehive poisonings in Quindio alone. Some 10 million bees have died. ICA sampled six of the affected apiaries.
The analyzes “have shown that the fipronil molecule is one of the causes of mortality,” Jorge Garcia, regional manager of this public body, told AFP, according to which, however, it should not be satanize agriculture.
He sent an “alert” to ICA headquarters in Bogota, which has since been working on a directive for the “suspension” of the pesticide. In the meantime, it remains marketed.
Withdrawing it from sale as in Europe “was not possible because agro-chemical companies will be affected economically” underlines Mr. Salazar.
The manufacturers are fighting back. A ban would generate “a very negative situation for the productive structure” of the 33 plantations which use it because of its “efficiency”, warns Maria Latorre, spokesperson for the sector.
Fernando Montoya of the Horticultural Association of Colombia, however, believes that this pesticide can be replaced by organic products, pest traps and manual intervention.
To counter the destruction of his swarms, Mr. Salazar, who produces 36 tonnes of honey a year, moved most of his bees, or 1,200 of his 1,500 hives, to isolated land in the Meta, 400 km away. South.
If he saved his business, this beekeeper wonders about the impact of agrotoxics: “The bee is a bio-indicator. If a bee dies, what other insects beneficial to the environment […] are dying? ”