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Building The Buzz – How Retailers Are Seeking To Protect Europe's Bee Population

By Steve Wynne-Jones
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More than ever, bees are under threat from pesticides, habitat loss, and climate change. How are retailers endeavouring to help save these precious species? Karen Henderson investigates. This article first appeared in ESM Issue 3 - 2019.

There has been large-scale change in the stance toward popular pesticides at the European Union level lately, due to their impact on the planet’s winged pollinators and the catastrophic effect that their decline could have on the world’s food crops.

At the beginning of April, the EU banned the UK’s most commonly used pesticide – a fungicide called chlorothalonil, which protects crops from mould and mildew – due to environmental and health concerns. France has also recently banned what researchers believe to be the five top bee-killing pesticides.

While there are concerns that banning pesticides will make it difficult to protect crops from harmful insects, there has been growing evidence that these chemicals are having a detrimental effect on the bee population. Pesticides can affect bees’ genetic make-up and become addictive, like nicotine, as well as alter behaviours involved in foraging and creating colonies.

Declining Populations

These many factors are contributing to the decline in bee populations across Europe. A report published in March, in the journal Nature Communications, found that Britain’s native pollinator species, such as bees and hoverflies, had decreased by one third between 1980 and 2013 – the same year that the EU initially put a temporary ban on neonicotinoid pesticides for use on flowering crops.


In 2018, a milestone European Food Safety Authority study found that neonicotinoids posed a threat to many different species of bees, after an extensive assessment of more than 1,500 studies on the impacts of three insecticides: imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam. The European Union subsequently banned this trio of products due to their potential harmful effects from outdoor (but not greenhouse) use.

Feeding The World

As providers of our daily bread, grocery retailers have reason to be concerned about pollinator decline.

Last May, a Penny Market discount store in Hanover, Germany, highlighted the stark importance of pollinators when it removed foods dependent on bees from its store shelves for several hours (a measure that was also recently adopted by Whole Foods in the US). The banner, part of the REWE Group, reported at the time that 60% of its total 2,500 products were either directly or indirectly reliant on the small insects.

At a subsequent press event, the environment minister of Lower Saxony, Olaf Lies, said, “The consequences of unchecked insect mortality are shown to us here in a frighteningly clear way. […] Without these insects, our supermarkets would be bare, and this problem would affect us all.”


Accommodating The Bees

Other retailers have been mounting efforts to combat the reported decline in pollinator species. In mid-March, Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn built a ‘bee hotel’ in Leiden, a city south-west of Amsterdam. Built in collaboration with the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, the wooden structure gives the bees a place to thrive – queens can lay their eggs in hollow stems of plants such as bamboo and reeds.

The retailer made the move following research that indicated that, of nearly 360 bee species in the Netherlands, more than half are threatened.

“This bee hotel shows in small detail what it’s all about: more space and flowers for bees, as a kind of quality mark for healthier and sustainable agriculture,” said Anita Scholte op Reimer, quality and sustainability director at Albert Heijn. The surrounding area was planted with bee-friendly flowers and plants by local students.

Albert Heijn has implemented other measures across its operations, such as reducing the use of pesticides and sowing the edges of fields with wildflowers and herbs that will promote healthy pollinator populations.


In nearby Scandinavia, Coop Sweden has been offering its customers the chance to trade in 3,000 loyalty points in order to add ‘100 buzzing honey bees’ to hives around the country. As of the year to date, this programme has enabled Coop to place 1.86 million bees in 31 hives, each of which typically has 60,000 bees.

In a positive example of the circular economy in action, the honey produced by these hives is sold locally.

Pesky Pesticides

Other retailers have also looked into pesticide use and tried to respond by banning certain substances or expanding their organic range. For example, in March of this year, Coop Denmark announced a series of new measures that will cut pesticide residue in its fruit and vegetable lines by 50%. The retailer has now imposed a ban on 37 pesticides already prohibited in the EU.

Discounter Aldi banned the use of eight pesticides from its US stores, including the three now-banned neonicotinoids, in January 2017. Rival Lidl’s current health and nutrition policy in the United Kingdom and Ireland states that its fruit and vegetables may contain no more than one-third of the maximum level of pesticide residues permitted by law, among other restrictions.


Elsewhere, at the end of 2017, Auchan Retail France launched a new range produced without pesticides, Sans Résidu, starting with oranges and clementines, with plans to extend this to a full range of fruit and vegetables by 2020. The line is priced at the same level as standard fruits and vegetables, in order to promote the company’s emphasis on healthy and local produce.

The retailer reported that this change limits the impact of production on the environment while also benefitting farmers and consumers.

Technology Taking Flight

Other companies have looked to more technologically advanced ways to combat the decline in pollinator populations.

For example, American heavyweight Walmart filed a patent for autonomous robot bees in March 2018, which would use cameras and sensors to track down crops, and then use a tool to move pollen from one field to the next. The so-called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) would be controlled by a centralised computer network and could operate day and night.

A few months later, healthy-living competitor Whole Foods launched an eye-raising Instagram awareness campaign, after its Whole Kids Foundation partnered with the Bee Cause Project for its ‘Give Bees a Chance’ campaign, which aimed to raise $100,000 for 50 school beehives. The savvy retailer unfollowed everyone except celebrities Beyoncé, Cardi B, and Sting – get it? – and deleted all its posts, leaving followers confused, before filling its feed with images of buzzing bees and facts about bee contributions to agriculture.

No matter what innovative initiatives supermarkets introduce, pollinator populations will continue to be impacted by human activity such as pesticide use and habitat destruction. In the years to come, retailers will need to be ‘busy bees’ to help save these small but powerful creatures.

© 2019 European Supermarket Magazine – your source for the latest retail news. Article by Karen Henderson. Click subscribe to sign up to ESM: European Supermarket Magazine.

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