(Mainichi Japan) March 4, 2009
There are too few honeybees in Japan. While one immediately associates the busy yellow and black insects with honey, Japan’s honey production is not the area of agriculture most threatened by the decline in the bee population. Fruit and vegetable farmers also depend on honeybees to pollinate their plants, and the shortage of bees has gone so far as to create fears of a produce shortage, one that could threaten dinner tables across Japan.
“I didn’t think for a moment that we would have a shortage,” laments Osamu Mamuro, president of Mamuro Bee Farm in Yoshimi, Saitama Prefecture, as he stands in front of one of the firm’s beehives. Mamuro Bee Farm supplies honeybees for pollination to farmers.
In a normal year, from now through spring, Mamuro would be busy buying up honeybees from beekeepers in and outside the prefecture and distributing them to farms. This year, however, Mamuro has found it difficult to meet demand, and deliveries to customers will drop to less than half the usual amount.
“If this keeps up,” Mamuro says, “it’ll be the end of my business.”
CAPTION: “The honeybees just don’t gather,” laments Osamu Mamuro, president of Mamuro Bee Farm in Yoshimi, Saitama Prefecture. (Mainichi)
Honeybees are essential in the pollination of fruit and vegetable plants such as strawberries, watermelons, melons, eggplants, Japanese pears, cherries, blueberries and so on. Fruit and vegetable producers buy honeybees just for pollination purposes and release them in their fields and greenhouses.
The honeybee shortage is attributable to a sharp decrease in the number of those kept by beekeepers. According to Maruto Tokai Co., a major supplier of honeybees to agricultural cooperatives all across the country, the crisis has become severe enough to “threaten the destruction of the industry.”
A sudden drop in the honeybee population is not an experience limited to Japan. In fact, a similar shortage began in the United States three years ago. The autumn of 2006 to the spring of 2007 saw a particularly alarming decline in bee numbers, when around 30 percent of American bees suddenly disappeared, a phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The underlying cause of CCD is as yet unknown.
In Japan as well, in the past several years there have been instances of sudden mass die-offs and disappearances in honeybee colonies in Iwate Prefecture and Hokkaido.
The Japan Beekeeping Association (JBA), composed of 2,500 honeybee professionals, undertook a survey of its membership to determine the breadth of the honeybee population decline. The survey, which received responses from 36 percent of the association’s membership, was conducted by a three person team, including Kiyoshi Kimura, head researcher at the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science, and Tatsuhiko Kadowaki, associate professor at Nagoya University, from August to December last year.
The survey revealed that one in four respondents had “experienced sudden losses of honeybees.” The scale of these losses varied, but “the number of beekeepers to lose large numbers of bees was more than we expected,” says Kimura.
Kimura visited the United States in December last year to observe the American situation.
“There have been small-scale honeybee losses for many years, but a massive collapse like they had in the U.S. is very unusual,” says Kimura, comparing the Japanese problem with the American CCD crisis of three years ago. “We must investigate the situation in Japan.”
Japan is home to many small-scale beekeeping operations. Unlike their American cousins, beekeepers in Japan do not often transport their honeybees long distances, meaning there is less stress that could affect the survival of the insects.
According to the JBA, Japan imports the vast majority of its honey, with only around 6 percent coming from domestic producers. As such, the honeybee population crisis “will not interfere with domestic honey production.”
However, the shortage of honeybees means real problems for fruit and vegetable farmers, who need the insects to get on with the vital work of pollination.
“From now on, it is possible that it will be increasingly difficult to secure honeybees for the purposes of pollinating eggplant, melon, watermelon and other produce plants,” says the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
“We are desperately trying to collect enough honeybees,” says the Inba agricultural cooperative in Sakura, Chiba Prefecture, as its members prepare for the watermelon pollination season in April. Uneasy voices can also be heard among strawberry, Japanese pear and melon farmers in nearby Tochigi Prefecture. The honeybee shortage means that these and other farmers may have to resort to pollinating their produce plants by hand.