The work of bees ensures most of the food we consume. Image: Dustin Humes / Unsplash

New project “seeks solutions to preserve bees, recover honey quality”

BeeLand project sets out to save Portugal’s organically produced local honeys

A new project with nearly one million euros behind it proposes to study and seek solutions to preserve bees and recover the status of honey in Portugal.

Presented yesterday in Mirandela (Bragança district), BeeLand is funded by the RRP (Programme for Recovery and Resilience) and involves 16 partners among companies, academia and beekeeping sector organizations. It has an execution deadline of 2025.

The purpose is to study the sector and changes caused by factors such as climate change, fires and drought, and seek solutions to the new situations they bring, particularly at the level of Portuguese honeys with protected designation of origin (PDO).

Portugal has nine PDO regions where honey produced obeys a series of rules defined 30 years ago, and which are not suited to current times on account of changes.

Many beekeepers are unable to meet the requirements of these rules, thus certified honey has been losing ground, with a drop from about 450,000 kilos in 2010 to 15,000 kilos in 2020.

As Cristofe Espírito Santo, of the national centre of competencies of apiculture and biodiversity – one of the entities involved in the BeeLand project – explains: “It’s not the beekeeper’s fault, nor that of the bees”. It is more a case of updating the specifications for PDO honeys “so that they can respond to current conditions”.

“PDO honeys indicate the tradition of the product, but technology has evolved”, explains Manuel Gonçalves, president of the national federation of beekeepers of Portugal, which is also a partner in the project.

“We are realising that we are going to have to value our organically produced PDO honeys to be able to stay in the market. Our market is for quality products and neighbourhood shops, not for large distribution“, he stressed, adding that “right now, with the great transformation that is happening in agriculture, with the planting of species that need pollination, the climate conditions, the demand for pollination by bees, we have to start organising the land“.

To this end, he argues Portugal needs to create “a pollination stock to be available at any time, to organise the sector” so that, in crisis situations – like the current one – there are no breaks in production.

Beekeepers generally speak of “one of the worst years ever” for production, with falls of 80% in a sector that has been unable to recover from the after-effects of last year’s drought, particularly as conditions are barely any better this year.

The BeeLand project will seek to find out “if the characteristics of the honey in the nine PDO regions remain the same, or if there have been changes” due, for example, to changes in vegetation, with plants disappearing and invasive species taking over.

Another objective is to increase the commercialisation of PDO honeys, specifically so “that producers manage that at least 50% of their honey is sold in places where it has an added value”.

As Cristofe Espírito Santo stresses, the work of bees “ensures most of the food” that we consume. Thus the BeeLand project aims to “support, innovate and boost the sector through the regeneration of burnt areas, updating of PDO specifications and creation of digital platforms that serve as repository of information on scientific papers, applied research, concrete/real cases”.

The project also provides for the development of rapid methods for honey analysis and the installation of experimental fields at the innovation centre of the regional agriculture department in Mirandela, to regenerate uncultivable areas with native species such as rosemary and heather, to increase the number of bees and help pollination.

“The results that will be obtained here, can then be replicated in other parts of the country or even applied in other projects,” said Espírito Santo.

In January, the European Commission presented various measures of a plan that also seeks to reverse the decline of bees by 2030.

The seven-year plan calls for increased monitoring of the insects in the 27 Member States, aiming to halt the population decline of pollinators that are crucial to most crops and wildflowers.

As environmentalists are only too ready to explain, and the Commission now accepts, land use change, intensive agriculture with pesticides, pollution, invasive alien species, pathogens and climate change are among the threats facing pollinating insects.

The “New Pact for Pollinators” initiative aims to combat the alarming decline of wild pollinating insects in Europe and complements the Commission’s June 2022 proposal for a Nature Restoration Regulation, integrating the Biodiversity Strategy 2030 and the European Ecological Pact.

LUSA and Público