Mad Bee Disease Hits France -
Bees Unable To Find Own Hives
Susan Bell In Paris

Millions of French honeybees suffering from "mad bee disease" are becoming so disoriented they are unable to find their way back to their hives, causing a dramatic drop in honey production.
Honey bees will die within hours if they cannot find their way home. Only bees collecting nectar from sunflowers appear to be affected and environmentalists are pointing the finger at a systemic pesticide, Gaucho. Yesterday the government ordered a two-year extension of a ban on using Gaucho on sunflower seeds, to allow more study of its impact on bees.
Gaucho is used to coat seeds before sowing and moves through the plant via the sap. It is based on imidaclopride, a chemical that acts on the nervous systems of a wide variety of pests, including wireworm and aphids.
The German pharmaceutical firm Bayer, which manufactures Gaucho and sells it in 70 countries, says the pesticide leaves a residue in nectar and pollen but not nearly in the quantity required to have an impact on bees. However, beekeepers quote studies showing that plants sowed on the same spot as a crop treated with Gaucho, even two years later, contained traces of the product.
The National Union of French Beekeepers (UNAF) reported that national honey production fell to around 25,000 tonnes in 1999 from 35,000 tonnes before systemic pesticides were introduced in the early 1990s. The number of hives has plummeted to one million from 1.45 million in 1996.
The agriculture minister, Jean Glavany, has launched an urgent investigation and has asked a committee of independent experts to look at all possible causes.
He has asked the ministryís toxicology commission to report as soon as possible on the potential impact of Gaucho residue on soil. The pesticide is also used by wheat, barley, maize and sugar beet growers to protect against greenfly.
Gaucho was introduced in France in 1994 and some beekeepers say they observed a change in bee behaviour as soon as it began to be used.
One honey-producer from the VendÈe said: "After just three days, the activity around the hive was sharply reduced and the bees were wandering all over the field, completely disorientated, and eventually dying."
Bayer says scientists must look at other causes for the bee population decline and points out the problem has affected beekeepers across the country, including many in regions where Gaucho is not used.

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