When Humans Are Forced To Replace The Bees They Killed

Since insecticides have killed most bees in China's Sichuan province, local farmers are forced to fertilize the flowers themselves. But the "bee-men" may now be a dying breed.

A woman picks fruits for pollination in China's Zhejiang Province, in April 2014.
A woman picks fruits for pollination in China's Zhejiang Province, in April 2014.
Harold Thibault

NANXIN — It is the height of pollination season in the orchards of China's southwestern Sichuan province. Perched on the apple trees' branches, farmers of the Nanxin village twist and turn to reach the flowers that are the furthest away. Doing what bees do anywhere else in the world requires a certain degree of agility.

Zhen Xiuqiong, 56, has been climbing her and her neighbors' trees at the arrival of every spring for the past 20 years. Branches sometimes break, but Xiuqiong says she is never scared. To her, it's all a matter of getting used to it.

Each year, all working-age villagers are summoned for hand-pollination. This spring, the activity started in mid-April and had to be completed before the 27th or the 28th. This strict timeframe, fixed by the weather and the flowering cycle, requires them to be fast. Even the oldest of these acrobatic villagers are dexterous enough that they can lay the pollen on every tree's flower in just half an hour. Such performance is necessary as each owner has between 100 and 200 apple trees.

Zeng Zigao, 38, explains that the system is largely based on mutual assistance: relatives are asked for help during the time of the procedure. Yet the deadline is so close that he also has to employ seasonal workers — five to six people this year, whom he pays 80 RMB (9.2 euros) a day and provides meals for.

“It’s an investment but if I miss the season, I won’t have enough fruits, so it’s a guarantee of productivity,” Zeng explains. The farmer considers himself lucky. In other orchards, workers are already asking for 100 RMB per day.

The best tool for hand-pollination is a shaft, at the end of which there is either a cigarette filter or the tip of an eraser pen. Around their necks, the “bee-men" and "bee-women" wear a small chewing-gum box filled with the pollen they gathered from other apple trees' flowers, before drying it out in the sun and grinding it.

In other Chinese regions, people can buy pollen from middlemen, but, in Nanxin, they think their powder might be of low quality. Pollen loses its fertility quickly, sometimes even before reaching its destination.

These cultivators hide nothing about their techniques. Yet when it comes to the reasons that force them to replace insects, their answers become vaguer. From the top of his tree, Kang Zhaogui, 49, claims that the fall of the bee population has been clear here since the 1990s.

Where did they go?

Some journalists have not hesitated to make a connection with the Great Leap Forward, a campaign launched by Mao Zedong in 1958 that led to the Great Famine. Chinese people were asked to get rid of the sparrows that were “stealing” people’s grains, which, in turn, led to the proliferation of insects — and, eventually, to the mass spraying of insecticides.

Yet none of the Chinese researchers that studied hand-pollination gives any credit whatsoever to this theory.

What happened, then? The first possible explanation is that the surface area of forests — bees' natural habitat — has shrunk in favor of fields in the region over the last few decades. This territorial deficit doesn't explain everything. In reality, poorly-educated farmers largely use phytosanitary products to eliminate insects that may harm their fruits. They prefer spreading too much than not enough as their income mainly depends on their harvest. With 0.08 hectare of arable land per inhabitant in China (compared to 0.28 in France and 0.51 in the U.S., according to the World Bank), “farmers want to use their fields in the most intense way possible,” says Tang Ya, a professor at Sichuan University.

Hand-pollination also enables farmers to guarantee cross-fertilization with the most popular varieties of apples on the market. Treating each flower meticulously guarantees a tree full of fruit when the time to harvest has come.

Photo: Rebsie Fairholm

An Jiandong, a researcher from the Department of Apiculture at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, notes that, to this day, no legitimate study on the decline of pollinators in China has been conducted.

“Hand-pollination requires a large workforce and bees understand plants a lot better than humans,” Jiandong says.

Zhen Xiuqiong, the farmer perched on her branch, sees irony in the situation — her husband is a beekeeper. He rents out his bees to certain orchards in the region, but he will never let them gather pollen on the trees that keep his wife so busy. She is heavy-handed when it comes to insecticides. "If the bees pollinated here, they would die," Zhen says.

Her neighbor, Kang Zhaogui, agrees, saying it should be required to destroy the chemicals before the flowers blossom, so that no one renting out their bees would risk losing them in a plantation.

At a time when the low quality of farm-produced food has become a major political issue in China, the residents of Nanxin acknowledge that the authorities have become stricter when it comes to fruit control. As a result, farmers now tend to use less powerful insecticides — even though some admit they compensate by spraying more often.

According to Professor Tang, who often goes to Nanxin, the socio-economic changes that China is currently experiencing are making hand-pollination more and more costly. When farmers started doing it at the end of the 1980s, the expenses seemed insignificant.

The increasing cost of living is already forcing villagers to turn to other, more profitable fruits. If apples are sold for only one RMB per pound (0.12 euros) to wholesalers, cherries can reach a price up to 20 times higher.

According to the scientist, the rapid wage growth could discourage farmers from resorting to hand-pollination. Travelling beekeepers renting out their bees could replace the “bee-men,” on the condition that residents accept to decrease their use of toxic agents.

But, most importantly, Tang observes that the younger generation is more attracted to the city lights than to the prospect of working as a beekeeper carrying his hives from one village to another. All these elements, the environmental expert hopes, could encourage farmers to adopt “sustainable” practices, that would likely allow bees to resume their work.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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