Beekeepers fear Sicilian threat to local agriculture

Maltese beekeepers concerned about a recent importation of bees to Gozo by a renowned Italian apiculturist

Maltese beekeepers are concerned about a recent importation of bees to Gozo by a renowned Italian apiculturist, over fears of infestation from the deadly small hive beetle – a well-known beekeeping pest whose larvae feeds on honey, pollen and bee brood – that has led to a mass culling of Sicilian hives.

But veterinary authorities in Malta have inspected the boxes imported by Ermanno de Chino, and declared them free from pests.

The small hive beetle’s rapid breeding rate means that it can quickly wipe out a colony.

“One beetle can lay up to 200 eggs in three days,” beekeeper George Baldacchino explained. “Malta’s beekeeping industry will be doomed if even one small hive beetle reaches our shores, and local agriculture will also suffer a huge knock without the pollinating effects of bees.”

Melita Bees Limited was formed last November by Ermanno De Chino, the owner of Apiservices – a bee-breeding company based in Ispica, southern Sicily. De Chino told MaltaToday that he recently imported 445 nucleus bee colonies from the north-west of France to Gozo, for usage by his new company to produce queen bees for export. 

“Gozo has mild winters and warm summers, which will give our company a competitive edge,” he explained.

However, beekeepers claim De Chino’s bees did not originate in France but in Sicily – something he denies – after the small hive beetle ravaged beehives there in November when it spread to the island from Reggio. The European Commission has since ordered Italy to ban the exportation of bees and beekeeping equipment from the affected regions to other EU member states. 

On Saturday, 10 January, beekeeper Ray Sciberras was tipped off by a Sicilian friend that two trucks bearing several hives had boarded a late-night catamaran from Pozzallo, an estimated 15-minute drive from Ispica, to Malta. Sciberras said that he drove down to the port and located the trucks.

“The ferry was met by police and border inspection control vets who checked the certificates but did not carry out any physical inspections on the hives,” Sciberras said. 

He then trailed after them to Cirkewwa, where all three vehicles boarded the 12:20am Gozo Ferry. 

“Upon arriving in Gozo at around 1am, a police car from the Rapid Intervention Unit followed the trucks,” Sciberras said. “I continued following them but one of the policemen in the car threatened me to stop following it. I was called to the Victoria police station, where I told the police that I had a right to be driving on public land and filed a report against the policeman who had threatened me.” 

Beekeepers’ doubt over French origin of hives

The hives that were imported last week were accompanied with the proper documentation to prove that they originated in France, agriculture parliamentary secretary Roderick Galdes confirmed. 

“The Maltese veterinary authorities also ascertained the hives’ freedom from pests or disease by a thorough inspection of the boxes by the official veterinarians at their destination,” Galdes said. “The departments find there is nothing that would suggest further investigation.” 

Some beekeepers remain unconvinced. 

“If those trucks had started their journey in the north of France, then the hives would have been covered by nets to protect the bees from the cold and to stop the hives from falling off as the trucks traversed the French highway,” Sciberras said. “Only one of the trucks that arrived in Malta was covered with a net. 

“Also, the hives on the trucks look exactly like those used in similar operations in Sicily, particularly in the Ispica region. The trucks themselves looked far too old and run-down to be able to travel from the north to the south of France.” 

He admitted to the possibility that the hives could have changed trucks between their origin and final destination, but insisted on seeing a copy of the trucks’ travel logs.

When asked for the details of the trucks’ journeys, Galdes said that they couldn’t be provided “as the Maltese veterinary authorities’ concern is about the hives’ freedom from pests or disease.”

“If the bees originated in France, then why did they stop at Pozzallo?” Mario Borg questioned. 

“It appears as though Apiservices found a loophole that allows them to sell in Europe,” George Baldacchino said. “One small hive beetle popping up in Malta will give the country a really bad name. Who will shoulder responsibility if the beetle does appear on our shores?”

However, the Apiservices owner said that importing the bees from Sicily would have been tantamount to a suicidal business deal. ”Had the bees been from Sicily, where they would be infested with the small hive beetle, it would have been useless setting up business here because the cultivation of the queen bees would be impossible,” De Chino said. 

On his part Galdes pointed out that the setting up of Melita Bees Limited could actually lower the pest risk for local beekeepers. “The production of hives and queen bees is a service that isn’t currently present in Malta. Maltese beekeepers have long complained that operators currently drive to Sicily to buy low quality stock, or bumblebees which increase the risk of introduction of pests.

“The establishment of this company in Malta will offer an alternative that can actively reduce the need for these overseas purchases and the associated risks.” 

The parliamentary secretary’s assertion that the beekeepers are “direct competitors” of Apiservices did not go down well with the beekeepers, some of whom pointed out that their business is honey and De Chino’s is bee breeding.

‘High chance of aggressive bee inter-breeding’

The interbreeding of Maltese and foreign bees, be they French or Italian, often results in aggressive hybrids, senior rural sciences university lecturer David Mifsud said. 

“If the imported bees are fully healthy, which I doubt is the case, then the issue remains that the Maltese bee is indigenous and doesn’t breed well with Italian and French bees,” Mifsud, who is also the president of the Association of Maltese Apiculturalists, said. “Bringing them over is threatening our Maltese agricultural identity.” 

When asked, De Chino dismissed such claims.

“Maltese apiculturalists have already imported Italian bees so there are already hybrids in Malta,” the Italian businessman said.