By: Joseph Cazier
Why Americans Should Care
Joseph Cazier outside the European Parliament at the start of BeeWeek 2018.
From June 26-28, 2018 the European Parliament hosted the seventh annual BeeWeek in Brussels, Belgium. I was fortunate enough to have been invited to attend and present during the events of that week. While many may think that what happens in Europe or the rest of the world does not impact us here, this article addresses all the reasons why we should care and how what they are doing there may affect beekeepers everywhere, even in the U.S.
First I will discuss why we should care about these events, then I will give an overview of some of the events at BeeWeek I found most interesting from a technological point of view then end with some concluding thoughts.
Why we should care about these events
The primary purpose of BeeWeek is to draw attention to some of the problems that bees and beekeepers face, and to educate the legislatures and staff in the European Parliament, who participate in making and enforcing regulations across Europe, about what they can do to help the bees. This year the theme was focused on how farmers and beekeepers can work together to address these problems.
Due to political, geographic, historical and structural differences between the U.S. and the E.U., not everything that is being talked about in Brussels is immediately relevant in the U.S. However, there are many problems they are facing that are similar to the ones we are facing here. In some areas, there may be things they can learn from what we are doing; in other ways, there are things we can learn from their efforts to address similar problems in new ways. I will expand on a few reasons in the next subsections.
Cultural Legacy and Diversity in Beekeeping
One of the reasons it is important to pay attention to what they are doing for the bees around the world, including Europe is the diversity of types and approaches to beekeeping that exist in Europe. For example, consider that there are 28 member states in the E.U. with very different cultural, language, and economic differences among them. Several of these countries have different approaches and histories with beekeeping. Some of them, like Turkey1, can show evidence of keeping bees in their region for almost 10,000 years.
By contrast, most of the bees in the U.S., as well as the craft and approach, were imported from places like Europe a few hundred years ago. While there are still regional and cultural differences in parts of the U.S. in our approach to beekeeping, there is a much greater dispersion of approaches throughout the different countries and cultures of Europe than the U.S. due to their history, geography, and beekeeping culture.
For example, though it is roughly half the size of the United States by land mass, the European Union is about half again as large in terms of total population. There are also about 600,000 beekeepers across Europe compared to around 200,000 in the U.S.
By observing how these different groups address beekeepers’ problems and recording what works in different circumstances, Europe, and really the rest of the world too, can become a laboratory for helping us identify best practices for some of the issues we face in the U.S.
We depend on the rest of the world, including Europe, for a significant portion of our food supply, especially to improve the timing and variety of foods available to us. Our world is connected like it has never been before. In a typical week, the average American eats food grown, packaged and processed from all over the world. Whether it comes from Europe or elsewhere, imported food gives us more variety and availability. Some of it is healthy like fresh fruits and vegetables, some less so like processed foods amalgamated from food derivatives.
While we can support and praise the local food movement, there are limits to the variety and timing of the foods that can be grown in any given region. If we value the ability to choose what we eat and when, we should want all parts of the world’s agriculture sector to be productive.
“One of the reasons it is important to pay attention to what they are doing for the bees around the world, including Europe is the diversity of types and approaches to beekeeping that exist in Europe.”
Additionally, it is not hard to imagine the escalation of conflict that would arise globally if we lost a significant supply of our food due to bee loss in an important part of the world. Losing bees anywhere would be a threat to our global food security and ultimately our physical and economic security too. (See the June 2018 Inner Cover by Kim Flottum for additional information on our sources of food.)
Different Legal Systems for Food Production
Europe, as well as other parts of the world, has a different approach to regulating agriculture and agricultural products than we do in the U.S. Most notably for beekeepers is their near total ban on neonicotinoid pesticides currently being implemented in the E.U.2 For those of us in the U.S. concerned about bees who suspect that neonicotinoids pose a risk to our bees, this ban will give us data to watch if such an action makes a difference to bee health on a grand scale. Similarly, their reluctance to allow genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into their farms and markets will act as a large scale natural experiment that can help us better understand the role of GMOs, if any, in declining bee health.
Overview from events at BeeWeek
As you might expect from a meeting organized by a policy and law-making group similar to our U.S. Congress, there were a fair amount of political events and discussions taking place during BeeWeek, particularly around the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), legislation similar to our farm bill. However there were many other activities too. As a data scientist who loves bees, I am going to focus on the parts of the conference that I think are both the most relevant to us in the U.S. and can help us on our path to build a Genius Hive as I outlined in the April 2018 issue of Bee Culture. Here are a few of the highlights:
I was particularly impressed by some of the work being done by the European Food and Safety Authority (EFSA), led by Tobin Robinson and Simon More. This group was highly active at the conference and also in their activities to help address the problems that beekeepers face across Europe.
In particular, this group is leading a consortium of partners to harmonize, collect, and store European data on bees. Their efforts parallel, but are distinct from, some of the efforts of HiveTracks and others to collect and harmonize data from lay beekeepers in a “citizen science” effort to understand and adapt to the problems bees face.
Nonetheless these efforts are very important and complementary in trying to use technology and data to help save the bees. As I understood their presentations, they are primarily focused on rigorous scientific data collection with the goal of collecting all of the data they can from scientists across Europe, particularly those receiving government funding, and then storing the data in a known format that can be combined with that of other scientists for deeper analysis.
This is a critical step on the path to the Genius Hive. Though their data will be relatively small in volume (compared with the Big Data needed in predictive analytics), it will have a very high degree of quality and be very targeted to addressing problems selected for funding to address. Theirs will also be very rigorous scientific studies both of the original data and any meta-analysis (wide scale aggregated analysis of the underlying data), which will help answer some very important questions with rigor and confidence.
Being developed by Chris Topping, a research professor for Bioscience at Aarhus University in Denmark, ApisRAM is a sophisticated risk assessment model for bees. Through a detailed breakdown of how a hive works and how it interacts with the environment, Chris is building a scalable computer simulation of the hive that could give us insight into how a hive interacts with the rest of the ecosystem around it. This system aims to simulate interactions between various components of the ecosystem and hive and will help predict complex system dynamics.
Once tested and validated, this type of model will ultimately help us better understand the factors impacting the health of a hive, or a network of hives across the world. It will also help us to better understand how changes in our current ecosystem might affect bees worldwide, giving us time to adapt and try to prevent problems or optimize opportunities for healthier bees. Supported by EFSA mentioned in the section above, I think this model, though not perfect, still has a lot of potential to help us know what actions can most help the bees in both Europe and the U.S.
“The problems that bees and beekeepers face today are bigger than any of us. It will take knowledge, experience, and efforts from all of us to solve them in a satisfactory way.”
Varroa Alert System
My good friend Michael Rubinigg, Ph.D and Science Officer for the Austrian Beekeeping Federation, gave a very impressive presentation of his organization’s (Biene Österreich) efforts to use crowdsourced data from their Austrian beekeepers to collect data and send out early alerts to regional beekpeers of problems like Varroa that are coming so they can take actions to prevent them or mitigate their impact.
This type of translational scientific outreach, with the help of crowdsourced data, is exactly where modern technology can offer the most benefit to our world’s beekeepers. This type of outreach not only lets you understand what is happening, but does so in a way that is timely and relevant to our beekeepers and helps them change the outcome instead of just understanding it later. I am hoping to find ways to collaborate with Dr. Rubinigg and others to greatly increase these services worldwide.
Ecological Monitoring with Hives
This topic was a little different than the others. While most were focused on saving the bees from changes in our world, this idea was the reverse: using beehives to detect and monitor the changes and threats to our world and local environment. The idea was presented by Dr. Kim Nguyen from the University of Liege in Belgium. Through his start up, BeeODiversity3, he is using bees to collect pollen from the region and then testing that pollen for environmental toxins and contaminants. He can then map his results and take additional measurements over time to detect changes in the regional environment.
He demonstrated how he was able to use his hives to measure contaminants like arsenic, lead, and pesticides in a region more efficiently and effectively than traditional methods. This seems like a nice way to use our hives as sentinels to environmental problems in our regions, as bio-sensors if you will, which can help us understand not only the environment, but also how it is affecting our hives. It might also turn out to be a nice business model for him.
BeeXML is the brainchild of Walter Haefeker, President of the European Beekeepers Association, though I had the privilege of presenting the concept during BeeWeek. The idea is to develop a worldwide standard for collecting, storing, and transmitting data related to bees using XML, a language similar to HTML that allows for the transfer of data in a standard format along with its meaning.
If this were achieved and adopted, it would pave the way to collecting and analyzing the big data needed to really help our beekeepers worldwide and build the Genius Hive. This is such an important issue that I plan to write more on this topic in next month’s article.
A map of the countries in the European Union.
BeeWeek is an international event. However, it is about more than BeeWeek. The problems that bees and beekeepers face today are bigger than any of us. It will take knowledge, experience, and efforts from all of us to solve them in a satisfactory way. It is about resiliency. In order to be resilient and overcome the challenges beekeepers face and take advantage of future opportunities, we need to focus on the best knowledge and information that can help us, not where that knowledge comes from.