Organic Farming Not Always Best Option for Bees, Study Shows

Organic farming is not necessarily the best option to protect wild bees, German researchers have found.

Agroecologists of Göttingen University in the German State of Lower Saxony say that their study results underline the importance of evaluating biodiversity benefits from different perspectives.

A team of crop scientists headed by Professor Teja Tscharntke examined 10 agricultural landscapes near Göttingen for two years.

Each of them contained three winter wheat fields: one organic field, one conventional field featuring strips of flower beds, and one conventional field without flower beds.

German field
Flower strips next to a conventional wheat field near Sebexen in the district of Northeim, Germany. Costanza Geert/Zenger

The agroecologists recorded the occurrence of wild bees at the edges of each of these 30 fields.

The scientists said the results could easily lead to the conclusion that conventional fields might attract more bees than organic fields. However, they underlined that this conclusion was insufficient.

Tscharntke said: "When we looked more closely, this did not give us a complete picture. It did not take into account that flower strips only cover about 5 percent of conventional fields - which has significantly fewer bees overall than the organic farmland."

Göttingen University cooperated with the Center for Organic Research in Vacratot, Hungary, over their wild bee biodiversity research.

Dr. Peter Batary, a group leader at the Hungarian institution, explained: "Organic farming - which typically has more wild plants than conventional fields - is actually more successful than conventional fields with flower strips in promoting bees."

Tscharntke added: "The missing piece of the jigsaw is the fact that fields of grain in organic farming yield only half the harvest of conventional farming.

"When the loss in wheat yield is taken into account, a 10-hectare (24.71 acres) area of organic farmland should be compared to five hectares (12.33 acres) of conventional farmland plus five hectares of flower strips, which would lead to 3.5 times more bees but the same yield.

"In this scenario, organic farming would not be the best way to support wild bees."

Students in German organic wheat field
Students in an organic wheat field near Bodensee, a municipality in the district of Gottingen, Germany. Sinja Zieger/Zenger

The biodiversity experts underlined that different criteria must be applied when it comes to evaluating the environmental friendliness of harvesting and agriculture in general.

Tscharntke said: "It is only when we take into account the area along with the yield together with the type of farming that we can achieve a balanced understanding of the ecological and economic effectiveness of environmental measures."

Native wild bees often have to compete for the limited habitat and available food sources available with beekeepers' honeybees.

The University of Göttingen was founded by George II, king of Great Britain and elector of Hanover, in 1734. It is the oldest university in Lower Saxony.

The Göttingen University study results on biodiversity and wild bees come just days after a leading scientist's warning over a potential global threat to bees.

Dr. Robert Paxton from Martin Luther University in the German city of Halle, Lower Saxony, warned that the latest variant of the Deformed Wing Virus had the potential to wipe out honeybee populations all over the world.

Paxton called the virus the "biggest threat to honeybees right now."

The virus variant is spread by varroa mites. It causes serious damage to the insects' wings before eventually killing them.

Paxton pointed out: "Bees are the most important creature for mankind and the environment."

Honeybees are social flying insects known for their construction of perennial colonial nests from wax, the large size of their colonies, and surplus production and storage of honey.

World Bee Day was celebrated May 20. Its purpose is to acknowledge the role of bees and other pollinators for the ecosystem.

This story was provided to Newsweek by Zenger News.