Warm winter prompts fears of impact on bees and fodder

Aside from impacting fodder and mushrooms, the ongoing dry, warm weather might also wreak havoc in the systems and lifestyles of bees. 

The unseasonably warm and sunny winter days this year may be welcome to those who don’t like the cold, but the people who till the land and grow our fruit have been worried this past year, and continue to be so: this weather could spell trouble both for fruit cultivation later in the year, and for fodder production for livestock.

Agronomist Charles Zahra is predicting a very low fodder yield this year from Malta’s dry land, whose fodder is also used for the production of mushroom substrate. “The probability will be that both these sectors will need to rely on imports from other countries to sustain production, otherwise the shortage might lead to issues in keeping livestock well nourished, both for meat production and for animal byproducts like milk and cheese for instance.”

Besiders fodder and mushrooms, the ongoing dryness and warmth might also wreak havoc in the systems and lifestyles of bees. 

“Bees are essential for the pollination of many horticultural crops, and they are having reduced nectar availability… this ultimately affects the pollination of horticultural crops such as peaches, nectarines, melons, watermelons, broad beans and strawberries, besides beekeeping itself.”

Earlier this week, a number of growers from the Farmers’ Market in Ta’ Qali who spoke to MaltaToday also pointed out that the warmth is expected to stall fruit production, given that trees are not going through the necessary hibernation brought on by colder temperatures, which then helps them to produce fruit in the warmer months. 

“Although it is early to predict what type of summer we will be having, the mild winter also means that the shallow Maltese soils have very low water moisture, and therefore will not support vegetation during the dry summer months unless farmers turn to irrigation,” Zahra said, adding that he would not be surprised if peach, apricot, pear, young olive trees and vines growing on dry land end up collapsing due to drought in the coming months.

The scene at the Farmers’ Market is not however, all doom and gloom. Some farmers experienced something of a boom in the growth and harvests of vegetables like zucchini, potatoes and cauliflowers and fruits like strawberries and tomatoes. 

“The immediate effect on fruit is in fact, currently being exemplified by strawberries; they will experience an anticipated harvest,” Zahra said, adding that Spanish strawberry producers have calculated that we are experiencing a season anticipated by as many as 20 days.

In fact, warm temperatures can lead to faster growth for crops, provided that some form of artificial irrigation is present. 

“This leads to what I’d call a ‘false bumper crop’ where you get a large harvest and an oversupply,” John Paul Cauchi, a specialist in environmental health at the University of Malta.

Even growers who spoke to MaltaToday confirmed this thesis, saying that they had had to sell their products at relatively low prices to remain competitive, making the cost of growing the crops almost completely unprofitable.

“Rainfall this year has been very low, so far at levels usually quantified for a desert environment, with just about 215mm so far,” Cauchi said, adding that this would undoubtedly have implications for the agriculture sector as well as biodiversity. Data from the Met Office shows that with just 2.2 mm of rainfall in February (up until noon on 18th February), it was the driest February experienced in the past 30 years. January presented the country with a mere 28.2 mm of rainfall compared to the 49.4 mm last year and 58.4 mm in 2014.

“The agricultural sector therefore is in such a state where farmers have to constantly resort to underground water,” Cauchi said, pointing at a very pertinent problem.

“These aquifers are already dangerously depleted and they are a very slowly-renewing resource, so as this water is taken up, it becomes more salinated (due to seawater perfusion, for example).”

The result of this excessive use means Malta’s fields can become increasingly saline as more sea water enters the aquifers, needing more water to wash out salt, and subsequently becoming a never-ending cycle that severely depletes the quality of the fields and soil.

The absence of rainfall further exacerbates this already depleted ground water reserve. Water treatment engineer Marco Cremona said that underground water supplies were being further exacerbated by the lack of rainfall, but that the effect would be felt in the long-term rather than immediately.

“The winter season is often a period of rest for aquifers because farmers no longer need to pump water given the presence of rain, however, this year, water pumping went on aggressively throughout the year,” he said. 

It could take water 40 years to travel all the way to the aquifers, but the absence of rain, and continuous extraction of water from aquifers means there will be no replenishment whatsoever during the year. “Of course the shameful state of ground water is not just due to rainless winters,” Cremona said, adding that there were ways to undercut the effects of the dryness if people were willing to do so.

“The truth is that people do not care about this tragedy, because they cannot see it, given that it is happening underground,” he said. So while places like Australia and California have introduced hosepipe bans to counter droughts, Malta “is not even marginally close to having such water policies, particularly because people couldn’t see the aquifers getting progressively emptier and more polluted,” Cremona complained.

“Not only are we far away from an effective management policy, but roundabouts and parks are being covered by turf which requires quite some attention and water, however pleasing to the eye they may be.”

While the government had promised the completion of drainage polishing plants for water to be re-used for agriculture and landscaping purposes, Cremona says this expensive facility could end up exacerbating the problem because it needs to be accompanied by a ban on extracting ground water, introducing quotas and pricing extraction. “If you simply add another 7,000 tonnes of water to the mix, without controlling borehole and aquifer use, then you are merely decreasing the value of water.”

Similarly, Cauchi criticized the lack of metering and costing of water extraction. “The future of agriculture might be somewhat bleak if people and even those involved in agriculture themselves were not willing to change. Some simple adaptations include using pipe irrigation, borehole regulation and increasing the price of water.”

Farmers can, for example, look at alternative crops to plant that are more drought resistant. “We can also explore alternative farming methods, such as agroforestry, which would have a long-term beneficial effect in Malta as it also increases biodiversity and afforestation.”