MOSCOW -- In the village of Verkhnyaya Medveditsa just north of Kursk, Andrei Malykhin has spent years tending to beehives and doing his part to contribute to Russia's sizable yearly honey output.
With the arrival of spring this year, his bees once gain flew off to pollinate nearby crops. But this time, few made it back. Apparently poisoned by pesticides, they began dying before they even reached their hives.
His farmland was left scattered with hundreds of thousands of dead honeybees.
"They were having spasms and convulsions, and slow, painful deaths. You simply can't explain how it looks. And you can't do anything," he said over the phone. "I made frantic calls to find out if there's anything I can give them, any antidote. There was nothing."
Malykhin estimates he's lost 35 bee colonies -- between 60,000 and 100,000 from each hive, and possibly more than 3 million individual bees -- to a nationwide epidemic that is pitting Russia's agricultural firms against its beekeepers, and eliciting frantic calls for government help.
Across the country, beekeepers have been opening hives where colonies of bees once thrived to scoop out handfuls of dried, blackened insect corpses. Last month, they took to the streets to demand immediate action against pesticide users, warning that the disappearance of Russia's bees will mean the disappearance of much of life itself.
In Kursk on July 13, Malykhin gathered fellow beekeepers from the region to call for a tightening of official controls over the use of chemicals in farming. Ahead of Vladimir Putin's call-in show on July 20, he led the group in a video address to the Russian president.
"Our government wants to help, it's trying to help, but it just lacks the power. Please help them, and help us," Malykhin is shown saying in the video.
Beside him, fellow beekeepers hold banners with apocalyptic slogans like "The rabbits have disappeared, the larks have gone, the bees will perish, and the people will die."
Such protest actions come against the backdrop of alarming reports suggesting that the bee population of Russia's central and southern regions is rapidly declining. Arnold Butov, the head of Russia's National Union Of Beekeepers, said that 20 Russian regions have reported mass fatalities of honeybees.
The death rate is widely thought to be associated with violations by farmers in the use of pesticides and a lack of government supervision. Until recently, Russia's agricultural safety watchdog Rosselkhoznadzor would regularly monitor pesticide use across the country. But now, farmers complain, almost no control is exerted.
Some farmers who rely on bees to pollinate their crops predict a growth in the prices of staples even as inflation continues to rock Russian households.
Russia produces around 100,000 tons of honey per year, and Butov predicts a 15 to 20 percent drop in those volumes in the near-term. But he also cautions against the kind of hysteria that he says some media outlets are fueling.
The issue with pesticide use stems from a lax system of checks and balances that has gradually worsened since the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union was among the factors that led to a loosening of state controls. Butov was reluctant to place blame in a phone interview, and said the current situation arises from general ignorance about the effect of chemicals in farming.
Now, he and his fellow beekeepers are planning to submit a report to the government by August 1, noting the scale of fatality and suggesting measures to curb it.
Russia is far from alone in facing a severe decline in its bee population. Globally, the process has been under way for years, and various countries have taken measures to counteract it. In April 2018, the EU introduced a ban on certain neonicotinoids, a family of pesticides that are among the most harmful to bees.
In the United States, the Department of Agriculture has warned of dire consequences to the country's food supply from the decline of the country's bee population, estimating that one in three bites of food people take can be traced back to the work done by pollinator insects like honeybees.
But despite the dire prognoses, many of Russia's beekeepers are optimistic. Malykhin's efforts to make public their plight in the Kursk region has attracted the attention of authorities and offers of compensation.
Beekeepers in the region have until August 8 to submit applications for compensation, he says, and a commission has already been formed to adjudicate.
And in the Oryol region, the prosecutor's office launched a criminal investigation on July 24 into the use of pesticides by local agricultural holding Otradaagroinvest, allegedly without prior consideration of their effects on the local environment.
For farmers like Malykhin, whose entire bee farm has been devastated, it's simply not enough.
"Launching a criminal cause against one individual does nothing, as this is happening across Russia," he says. "Our main aim is to hold to account those who caused this, since the financial damage to our beekeepers has been enormous."
Like others, he's calling for changes to Russian laws governing the use of pesticides, and has supported an online petition aimed at pushing the measure through.
Butov remains optimistic, and notes the role of Russian media in spreading word of the plight of his fellow beekeepers.
"This is a sign that serious attention needs to be paid to this issue," he says of the decline in Russia's bee population. "If there are no bees, there'll be no flora and fauna. And the consequences for life in general will be dire indeed."