Travel restrictions have been enacted across China, as a preventive measure against the spread of the new, dreaded disease. The restrictions, which some have decried as "hardcore," include sealing off roads and implementing approval systems for interregional transportation. Other containment measures include shutting down public spaces and barring residents from leaving their homes.
According to beekeepers, the travel restrictions have prevented them from carrying their hives and bee colonies to the country’s southwestern provinces where the bees usually feed during this time of the year.
As a result, beekeepers like Mo Jiakai are seeing their colonies starve. Mo noted that the recent travel bans have prevented him and his wife – as well as other beekeepers in their area – from bringing their bees to their feeding grounds.
“We would have to go into quarantine for 14 days upon our arrival, which means the hives would be left to starve and die,” said Mo, who has been in the beekeeping business for more than two decades.
Zhang Miaoyan, a beekeeper from Zhejiang Province, shares the same sentiments, adding that her bees have been starving for over 20 days.
“We beekeepers always say that we are in a bitter-sweet business. But this year, probably it is all bitterness,” Zhang said.
Zhang's statement carries a sting with it, as it has been reported that Liu Decheng, a beekeeper from Sichuan province, had killed himself after his bees died of starvation due to the recently instituted travel restrictions.
Mo, Zhang and the late Liu are among the roughly 300,000 commercial beekeepers in China, many of whom have been struggling to keep their businesses afloat in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
China has over nine million managed bee colonies, which produce about 500,000 tons of honey annually – about a fourth of the global output. Of that, it exports roughly 100,000 tons to places such as the United States and Europe, as well as other Asian nations. (Related: Bee warfare: Domesticated honey bees spread viruses on plants, driving wild bumblebees to extinction.)
The central Chinese government, through the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, the Ministry of Transport, as well as the National Development and Reform Commission, has asked local government units in the provinces to minimize disruptions to their agricultural sector, pertaining to the transportation of animal feed, livestock and bees. However, its implementation has been slow.
In a bid to help the embattled beekeepers, the Apicultural Science Association of China has urged beekeepers to contact local authorities if they need to move or arrange feeding trips.
In addition to disrupting the honey industry, the series of travel bans are also affecting other crops, specifically those that are heavily dependent on bees for their pollination.
Currently, out of the 100 crops that make up about 90 percent of the food eaten around the world, 71 rely on bees for reproduction. This is according to data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Association.
This figure includes about 85 percent of the fruits produced in China, such as apples, oranges and grapes.
“The honeybee plays an irreplaceable role in growing almonds, pears and peaches as well as strawberries in greenhouses,” said Wu Jie, former director of the Institute of Apicultural Research under the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, adding that the production and quality of fruit would be lower without these beneficial insects.