Romania is one of the European Union's most important honey producers -- so much so that the country's industry can't keep up with demand.
More than 50 percent of its honey is exported elsewhere in the European Union, on a par with fellow producers Spain and Hungary. But Romania's industry lacks the processing factories it needs to ensure its output stays pure, and a loophole in EU legislation enables the use of dangerous pesticides that beekeepers and NGOs say are killing the bee population.
In 2015 and 2018, Romania led the EU in terms of annual honey production, and the country has ranked among the world's top 10 since 2011. The spike in Romania's industry -- which has strong traditional roots -- is down to heavy investment, as well as the popularization of pastoral beekeeping, which is the practice of moving hives throughout the year so that bees have access to more pollen. The country's rich landscape of wild flora and fauna makes it ideal for cultivating honey, beekeepers say.
At its height, Romania produced up to 35,000 tons of honey a year. For perspective, China leads global production with 300,000 tons, followed at a distance by Argentina, the United States, and Turkey at 80,000 tons each. Ukraine used to be up there, too, until the start of Russia's invasion in February.
The war in Ukraine has had a devastating impact not only on its own status as a major honey producer but also on neighboring Romania’s beekeepers. The harvest in 2022 was half that of previous years, according to beekeepers, affected also by the severe drought that took up much of the season and racked up more expenses as beekeepers had to feed the bees at apiaries because of the lack of suitable flora.
"Only those who moved their bee colonies managed to produce any honey," says Razvan Coman, a beekeeper.
Crops of sunflowers and acacias, as well as orchards, suffered from the lack of rainfall, which meant fewer flowers were pollinated. The beekeepers hoped to receive some assistance from Romania's Agriculture Ministry, but none came.
Ioan Fetea, the president of the Association of Beekeepers of Romania, points out that other agricultural sectors were hit harder and thus the government isn’t likely to give them any aid.
"We asked for 40 million euros ($42 million). If we were to even get 10 percent of that, it would be 4 million euros. We would be happy with that. Since June, we've had a lot of costs related to feeding the bees special syrups and cakes," Fetea says.
No One To Process
The bad year also means that honey imports will increase, including in Romania, Fetea said. In a good year, half of the amount consumed by the EU -- somewhere over 500,000 tons -- is imported from China and Ukraine. But the war has meant that 90 percent of imports now come from China.
Because Romania lacks the processing facilities, a large part of its honey is exported in bulk. Only a small fraction ends up sold as quality products; beekeepers struggle to sell it cheaply, quickly, and in bulk to intermediaries who then export it. Honey straight from the hive cannot be sold directly to consumers without first being processed.
"The lack of entrepreneurs to process honey forces beekeepers to sell their honey in bulk," Fetea said. "Instead, we buy goods from China or Ukraine, which have a much lower quality."
Fellow beekeeper Bogdan Soian agrees, saying most honey ends up being exported to Europe at low prices.
"The state doesn't help with this," he says.
'Desperate To Sell'
Even in the years of record production, almost half of the honey sold in domestic stores has come from imports -- which shouldn't be the case, Fetea says. There's enough honey in Romania to cover its own demand, and then some, he maintains.
Most of the exports over 15,000 tons, or around 80 percent, go to Germany. Romanian honey also goes to Spain, the Nordic countries, and the Middle East.
Prior to 2022, Romanian beekeepers sold a kilogram of bulk honey for export for a maximum of 8 lei ($1.70 at current exchange rates). By contrast, RFE's Romanian Service found that in local grocery stores in Bucharest, for example, no 200-milligram jar of honey sold for less than 13 lei ($2.80).
Fetea also says it is unlikely that all the jars that claim to be “Romanian honey” truly contain just that: The color of the products on the shelf differs too much from the types of honey made in Romania, and traders aren’t required to specify what percentage of honey in a jar is Romanian.
“There’s also the underbelly of the beekeeping sector, consisting of those traders who go to all the producers, regardless of whether they have the right documents,” says Gabriel Postolache, president of the Stipunele Bistritei beekeeping cooperative. “The important thing is that they have honey and are desperate to sell it.”
Soian says the goal should be to get honey to consumers with as few steps as possible.
“Success is to close the chain: from the producer to the consumer through the shortest path without compromising on quality,” he says. “You have to take the bees to the mountains. My bees do not see agricultural crops.”
A Loophole On Pesticides
In 2013, in an attempt to protect already endangered bee populations, the European Union restricted the use of certain insecticides -- in particular, neonicotinoids, or neonics -- that are lethal for bees. As further evidence piled up of the dangers of using neonics on crops, the EU banned them completely in 2018.
But Romania has systematically circumvented the ban by exploiting a loophole hidden in the EU’s main law on pesticides, designed as a measure of last resort to save endangered crops.
Specifically, the Romanian Agriculture Ministry claims neonics are the only effective means of protecting crops from devastating insect infestations. Beekeepers’ associations, however, counter that the government is ignoring valid alternatives and grants exemptions for influential agricultural and agrochemical groups.
In a 2017 report, three EU NGOs and Romapis -- the Romanian federation of beekeepers’ associations -- singled out Romania as the "EU champion" of neonics exemptions and called on the European Commission to end its "deliberate inaction" and respond to Bucharest's "abuses" as stipulated by EU legislation.
Five years later, however, little has changed.
The problem isn't limited to Romania. Almost every EU country routinely uses so-called emergency authorizations to use banned pesticides.
France and Belgium’s continued exemptions for the use of neonics help secure the EU’s position as the world's leading sugar beet producer; Spain, the EU fruit-growing champion, uses them to allow farmers of popular crops such as melons or strawberries to use 1.3-dichloropropene, a fungicide so toxic that it has never received EU approval; and countries such as Denmark grant permits for the production of neonics for export, both to EU countries and outside the EU, according to an analysis by Politico.
In Romania, however, the continued use of neonics is particularly harmful for beekeepers, as the chemical has been used to cultivate large fields of sunflowers, corn, and canola -- all of which are considered attractive crops for pollinators.
Using banned seeds, beekeepers argue, only serves the interest of a small number of powerful growers and those of a government unwilling to give up its position as a major grain exporter.
Constantin Dobrescu, the vice president of Romapis, says the continued use of neonics played a "major role" in the "disastrous" rates of colony loss the beekeepers face each year.
According to figures from COLOSS, an international research group that monitors bee deaths, beekeepers in Romania lost 32.5 percent of their colonies in the 2020-21 winter period, a figure that Dobrescu says is among the highest in Europe.