FUENLABRADA DE LOS MONTES, Spain—In early May, here in the most prolific honey-producing town in Spain, Julio Solana Muñoz, a third-generation beekeeper, was more than a little nervous. The land was dry because of poor rains which meant fewer flowers for the bees. There were some rosemary blossoms and scattered wildflowers but that was about it.
Muñoz said that bee colonies were dying off for any number of reasons–parasites, pesticides, global warming. And then there is the question of cheaper imports from China.
The world is changing, with less and less of a place for bees, and their honey, and the people connected to them. The vast majority of the population in Spain, or anywhere in Europe, is not interested in the land. People live in the cities. And slowly but inexorably the land is dying. Some studies have concluded that by the end of the century two-thirds of the country could become desert.
This town of some 2,000 inhabitants, nestled in Extremadura, Spain’s poorest region with an average annual income of about 18,000 euros, is responsible for nearly 10 percent of honey production in Spain. At one time, roughly 90 percent of the town’s inhabitants worked in apiculture. Hives from across Spain are brought here for cultivation.
Year by year, however, the longevity of the hives has dwindled. “Ten years ago we would lose maybe four percent or maximum six percent mortality rate, ” says Muñoz. “Now we see up to 35 percent mortality rate in the colonies”
Stroll through the center of Fuenlabrada de los Montes and it’s apparent that not just the bees are dying out; so is the town. The streets are largely empty. Nobody comes in or out of the town hall. Even the local bar is pretty much empty with the exception of a group of old men playing cards.
Eighty-five-year-old Marciano Babeano Alvarez walks slowly alone, crutch-in-hand. He takes it and points at the houses and closed-up shops in the square. “The place on the corner is closed. The one next door, closed. Next door to them—nobody lives there,” says Babeano. Everywhere it seems buildings are up for sale.
The mayor of Fuenlabrada insists that the bee industry continues to attract young people who want to make a go at apiculture. And to be sure Fuenlabrada de los Montes has managed to combat the emptying of the Spanish interior better than most. There are villages in Spain that are now truly ghost towns–places like Olmeda de la Cuesta in Cuenca whose population is now 17 people (40 percent of whom are over the age of 65). In Fuenlabrada de los Montes, roughly 30 percent of the town’s population is over 65 years of age.
Spain’s countryside has for some time now been emptying out. According to Spain’s ministry for territorial policy, 90 percent of the country’s population–about 42 million people–is packed into 1,500 towns and cities that occupy 30 percent of the land. The other 10 percent (4.6 million people) take up some 70 percent–a precarious population density of barely 14 people per square kilometer.
Until the late 19th century, Spain was for the most part a rural society. But the rise of industry meant that workers began flocking in droves to the cities for work. This was the case until the Spanish Civil War from 1936 until 1939 when the migration trend reversed as families desperate to avoid starvation made their way back to the countryside mostly to find something to eat.
By the 1950s and ‘60s, people were streaming back to the cities and industrial agriculture slowly began to replace the family farm. In some cases, Spanish companies chiefly in agriculture offered higher wages in order to keep rural workers. The strategy was a complete flop. Meanwhile, the European Union tried to offer incentives to family farms. But the fact was that generation after generation of Spanish were simply not interested in a rural lifestyle.
So beekeepers are hanging on in a country where the countryside has essentially been left behind. Family farms have been replaced by monocrop industrial agriculture which relies on industrial scale pesticides to flourish and generally precludes the kind of crop rotation vital to insect diversity.
“I know Fuenlabrada de los Montes and the beekeepers there are not happy campers,” says Walter Haefeker, president of the European Beekeepers Association. Rural honey producers had to deal with the impact of large scale agricultural production and the use of pesticides. “Over time the older beekeepers who used to keep more hives to supplement their income are getting out of the business.”
Their struggle, given the mass exodus to the cities, is somewhat counterintuitive. One would think that with so much land now available, beekeepers should be doing better than ever. But beekeepers have to contend not just with pesticides and global warming but also with cheaper imports from China and the decline of political power in the countryside generally.
“It’s very well known in the industry that there is a lot of adulteration,” says Haefker. In Chinese imports there “may be some honey; it may be some rice syrup,” he says. “Their production methods, based on drying of unripe honey, are illegal according to international food law and the honey regulation of the European Union.” In the face of this, Spanish beekeepers are forced to deal with the increased mortality of their colonies by creating more hives. But these immature hives don’t produce honey in sufficient quantities. “They’re on a short rope,” says Haefker. “We have the highest sense of alarm. It’s not a situation that is healthy or encouraging.”
Spain is not alone. Professional honey producers throughout Europe who rely on bees living in the rural landscape face an unrelenting stress on their businesses. That the population of bees in Europe has remained stable at all is due to the efforts of urban beekeepers who keep the animals mostly for a hobby.
Professional beekeepers also happen to reside in parts of Spain where political power is in decline. When the Great Recession hit Europe in 2008, scarce government resources were concentrated in urban areas. Rural parts of Spain lagged behind when it came to such government improvements as infrastructure development, high speed internet and other services.
This was made worse by the continuing depopulation of the countryside. Less people meant less in the way of government attention and services. And the general decline in services makes it more difficult for any new business.
“There is less of a maintenance of forests and there is a real decline of local traditional activities which have been replaced by people from the cities opening rural accommodation,” says Andres Rodriguez-Pose, professor of economic geography at the London School of Economics.
“There is evidence that many of these businesses are not successful. They don’t survive because people don’t understand the immense difficulties of running a business in rural areas.”
The earliest known record of humans harvesting honey in what is present day Spain, perhaps even all of Europe, comes from cave paintings in the region of Valencia from between 7,000 to 8,000 years ago. Now some parts of the region, which produces seedless oranges, actually outlaw beekeeping during the flowering season in order to protect their crops. Those that remain are subject to severe stress due to the nature of industrial-scale monocrop agriculture.
The result has been a mass flight of bees from the Valencia countryside to the city of Valencia, located on the Mediterranean coast with a population of some 790,000 inhabitants. About four years ago, environmentalist in the city began to notice hundreds of swarms of bees, each as large as 10,000 bees.
The city’s fire department found hives in streetlights, abandoned cars, even the city‘s cemetery. “In the countryside there was a lack of water, there was monocrop agriculture and pesticides,” says Santiago Uribarrena, coordinator of the Valencia Tree Observatory. “The bees were refugees seeking sanctuary. Here in the city of Valencia there was water, plenty of flowers, few pesticides and an absence of predators.”
In response to the mass migration, the city has set up bee hives throughout the city. Neighborhood associations were allowed to begin to cultivate honey for their own use. For the city, the benefit was to have a vast army of pollinators for local plant life. The bees exist also as an indicator of the environmental health of the city of Valencia.
In the short term at least, if bees have a future in Spain, it may just be to follow the humans to the city. “At best, we left the countryside and they followed us to the city,” says Uribarrena. “Now it’s their habitat.”
The long term, however, is a different matter. “If urban areas continue to expand, which is likely, bees are going to do well,” says Dr. Ash Samuelson of Royal Holloway University of London, who researches urban bee migrations. “But we have to be careful about saying that the future of bees is in the cities. They’re moving here because agricultural areas are so poor for them. That is a fundamental problem that needs to be addressed.”