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Years-long Drought Threatens Honey Bees in Chile

Beekeeper Pablo Alvarez sits near his hives and points up into a cloudless, blue Chilean sky. Bees come and go along an imaginary line he makes with his finger. They travel as if following an unseen road in the air.

This season, Alvarez says, there is much less bee traffic than usual.

A quick look around his yard tells the story. Southern hemisphere spring rains once led to fields of dandelion flowers in Casablanca, a town on the Chilean Pacific coast. Now, there is just dry earth.


Men in beekeeper's outfits stand near beehives at an apiary, in Casablanca, Chile October 4, 2019.

Alvarez is secretary of Casablanca’s beekeeper organization. He says he lost half of his hives by early spring.

“At the end of winter, bees need flowers to grow and make honey,” he told Reuters reporters. No flowers means no food, he added.

His story is common among beekeepers across much of central Chile. A severe, years-long lack of rain is making life difficult for honey bees.


Bees are seen at an apiary, in Casablanca, Chile October 4, 2019. Picture taken October 4, 2019. 

Concern over how the changing environment has affected bees has reached the highest levels of government in Chile. The country has already provided large amounts of money for farmers suffering from the drought. In August, it said it would include the “costs” of climate change in future agency budgets.

“We all know the importance that bees have in agricultural production,” Agriculture Minister Antonio Walker recently told reporters.

Honey bees pollinate many of Chile’s major export crops, including avocados, blueberries, raspberries, apples, cherries and almonds.

Last year, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that Chile was already well short of the hives it needed to meet the demands of farmers. And, honey exports dropped by half last season compared to the year before, trade data show.

Daniel Barrera is a bee industry expert with the agriculture ministry. He said an exact count of hives lost this year will not be available until 2020. But reports from the field have not been hopeful.

“We’re not going to wait until we have the final data to take emergency action,” he said.

Already, agriculture officials have ordered a state of emergency in more than 100 farm communities throughout central Chile. Though dry periods are normal from time to time, officials say climate change has made the current dry period longer and more severe. Rainfall in September in Santiago was down nearly 80 percent compared to the historical average.

Hernan Chavez has long kept bees near the snowy Andes Mountains outside Santiago. This year, hillsides lacking plants forced him to move his hives to the polluted city center instead, where flowers still grow. “There’s always someone watering plants,” Chavez said of the city.

Chavez normally rents his 800 hives in the spring to pollinate the avocado crop. But last winter, three-quarters of his bees died.

“The drought has really hit us hard,” he said.

Mayda Verde is a Cuban animal doctor who works with the research laboratory Fraunhofer Chile. She has advised more than 100 beekeepers in the country on quick fixes to help their bees deal with a changing climate.

“There are things, which not everyone is doing, that can reduce the impact,” she said.

Alvarez, of Casablanca, agrees. He has begun taking care of an organic bee yard filled with native, drought-resistant plants.

Yet even as he describes those efforts, the horn of a water truck sounds. His well has run dry. Now he must pay for water, too.

Even once simple solutions are getting harder, said Enrique Mejias, a Santiago-based scientist.

“There’s no water anywhere,” Mejias said. “The bees are suffering just the same as cattle, crops and people.”

I’m Ashley Thompson.

Words in This Story

hive  n. a nest for bees

yard  n. an outdoor area that is next to a house and is usually covered by grass

pollinate  v. to give (a plant) pollen from another plant of the same kind so that seeds will be produced

rent  v. to let someone to use (something) in return for payment

impact  n. a powerful or major influence or effect

cattle  n. cows, bulls, or steers that are kept on a farm or ranch for meat or milk

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