Emergency from inside the world of the Maltese honey bee

Meet the beesavers: they are taking starving honey bees out of urban zones so that they can pollinate the crops we need to put food on our table

(Photo: Ray Attard)
(Photo: Ray Attard)

In just one year, a group of three men and a woman dedicated to the survival of the bee received nothing short of 115 requests from the general public. Their mission: relocating urban swarms to the countryside.

A vital part of the global ecosystem, the impact of the small insects on world food supplies cannot be overestimated.

“Bees pollinate a third of everything we eat. Around 84% of the crops grown for human consumption require bees, and other insects to pollinate them to increase their numbers and quality,” said Anthony Spiteri, the president of the small army that forms Beesavers Malta – conservationists who take a hands-on approach to the care of the bee.

Arnold Grech, Antony Spiteri, Bernardette Aquilina, and Antoine Galea
Arnold Grech, Antony Spiteri, Bernardette Aquilina, and Antoine Galea

Without honey bees, crops do not get pollinated. And that means crops do not grow to produce the food that is harvested and which feeds our families. Down the long line of the food chain – fruit, vegetables, nuts and plants like sunflowers used for oil, as well as cocoa beans, coffee and tea – the industrious honey bee has contributed to the survival of our food stocks and humanity itself.

It is for that reason that Spiteri’s bee savers, which was formed in 2015, is now dedicated to the conservation of the Maltese honey bees.

Together with his friends, Spiteri removes swarms of bees entrapped in urban dwellings or public places, which are then released into more suitable areas to “repopulate Malta’s bee populations.”

In the four years since the group was set up there has been a steady rise in bee swarm catches, which he remarks, is a welcome change from having pest controllers removed. “It is far more likely today that a bee colony gets removed rather than eliminated.”

Beesaversmalta removing hives from urban areas
Beesaversmalta removing hives from urban areas

And this alone has placed a heavy burden upon the bee savers. “We’re a small group with limited resources, yet we seem to be the only ones handling the difficult cases. Even the government farm at Ghammieri, which a while back was actually taking these cases on, now seems only interested in the easy cases. Time and again, Beesavers Malta are being recommended by the people at Ghammieri, despite us not receiving any government funding.”

But the bad news is that bees are starving. And that is a worrying sign for the state of our environment, Spiteri warns.

“We’ve noticed an extensive amount of cells within bee colonies that are vacant of pollen and nectar, and subsequently needed to be fed by us to survive,” Spiteri says.

Since the group does not take any of the honey produced, the sight of vacant cells is an indicator that something is gravely wrong. “It is an indicator that the bees are starving. There is a serious lack of bee foraging sources in Malta; this should raise alarm bells and it means that it will have severe ramifications soon. Right now in Malta it seems that the only green spaces we have are roundabouts.”  

Left: cells within bee colonies that are vacant of pollen and nectar
Left: cells within bee colonies that are vacant of pollen and nectar

Spiteri says that if Malta continues down this road, in five years the quality of honey produced in Malta will be almost non-existent. “Unless bees can forage from different species, they aren’t going to produce good honey, and it’s not just the honey sector that will suffer. The agricultural sector will fall apart, excluding wind-pollinating crops. You won’t see fruit, and trees will no longer be able to seed. If the bee population dwindles or goes extinct – which is a real possibility – it will send shockwaves through the entire industry.”

Spiteri says specific regions in China have been forced to resort to hand pollination due to the threat of bees going extinct, a costlier procedure that isn’t nearly as effective.

Spiteri says proposals the group has put forward to the environment ministry have not even been considered. “Basically the government needs to provide more than just minor subsidies to encourage farmers to grow French honeysuckle crops. It should be done across all government lands – it’s a one-time operation that wouldn’t be expensive to implement.”

Then there is the battle to conserve invasive species such as eucalyptus, one of the exclusive food sources for bees in summer. “The public might not know that eucalyptus’s deep roots provide the sole food source for bees in summer because they still manage to tap water and transport it to the flower.”

It is the same situation for prickly pears, as the pollen they produce is fundamental to bee colonies. “I do understand people’s issue with invasive species like eucalyptus. But perhaps they should be focused more on rampant construction: that is an invasive species that has left us in this dire situation. The real problem is staring us in the face.”  

Everybody’s bees-ness to help

Keeping pollinating plants in your gardens, homes, balconies and terraces can go a long way in helping the bee population of the island. The common misconception that swarms of bees will be plaguing your home day and night is false and shouldn’t deter anyone from choosing pollinating plants such as rosemary, lavender, sage, citrus, nepeta, mint, aster, goldenrod, sunflowers, and the bottle brush for people who want fragrant plants among many others.