The octopus that kills bees in Bulgaria

Octopod (Octopus) Invest Holding building in the city of Troyan. [Still picture from Valia Ahchieva's investigative film]

EURACTIV Bulgaria’s Valia Ahchieva’s latest investigation looks into mass bee poisoning in Bulgaria which continues to be unpunished, despite evidence of the use of substances banned by EU legislation.

Bees died en masse near the village of Petokladentsi in the Pleven region from 10 to 13 May and this was not the first time – it has been happening for three years now.

On 14 May, the beekeepers wrote an application to the Regional Directorate of Agriculture in Pleven. The next day, a commission of government officials and veterinarians arrived to take samples of the dead bees and weeds. The samples were sent to an accredited laboratory “Primoris – Bulgaria” in Plovdiv.

The results were released on 22 May. The expertise, commissioned by a beekeeper, stated that the substance thiamethoxam was found in both the plant and the bee samples.

This substance has been banned for use in the EU since December 2018. According to the European regulation, the substance can be used as a plant protection product indoors only – in greenhouses, for example.

The use of thiamethoxam is prohibited in open spaces because it poses a high risk to bees. Some other substances are banned in the EU for the same reason, including clotianidine and imidacloprid.

The same happened in 2018 and 2019 but the Pleven District Prosecutor’s Office was reluctant to initiate pre-trial proceedings.

Another beekeeper from the village of Bivolare who took part in the legal efforts three years ago, says those who use the banned drug seem to be untouchable.

According to him, it is because the state and its institutions are clearly not functioning. The district court had convicted the ‘Octopus’ company in question in the first instance, but the appellate court overturned the decision.

Beekeepers footed the bill for the lawsuits filed in 2018 and 2019. Each beekeeper paid BGN 840 (€420) for laboratory tests in the private laboratory, as the state had already been closed for some time. One bee sample costs BGN 420 (€210). And the same amount was paid for the plant samples.

Private laboratories are expensive and that’s why there were few lawsuits in court, Nikolov explains.

The reason is that they are considering the case of the poisoned bees under Article 216 of the Criminal Code, according to which in order for there to be a crime, there must be intent in the act.

Prosecutor Zdravko Lukanov believes that there was no intent to poison the bees. In addition, the legislation in Bulgaria equates bees to objects.

Ahchieva reviewed the cases and found that the decrees written by the control body – the Pleven Directorate for Food Safety – were defeated in court. The reason was that the control body did not fulfil its obligation to physically deliver the penal decrees to those concerned.

The director of the Regional Directorate for Food Safety in Pleven refused to answer Ahchieva’s questions. She wanted to ask him why he did not alert the prosecutor’s office after the use of banned substances under EU law was established.

Ahchieva was not able to talk with the owner of Octopus Invest Holding, Svetlozar Dichevski. His group is the largest agricultural company in the country, with revenues for 2013 totalling BGN 300 million (€150 million).

According to publications, through his five companies, Dichevski is a beneficiary of over BGN 22 million (€11 million) in direct payments from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.

Ahchieva questions if the Ministry of Agriculture is sheltering the “Octopus” company, since this protection has apparently been repeated for years?

The director of the Livestock Directorate in this ministry does not agree. According to her, the laboratory analyses had shown that there was no compatibility between the active substances in the samples of the dead bees and the samples from the vegetation. Accordingly, the beekeepers could plead only if the bee families were poisoned by the substance used for treating the plants.

So for the Ministry of Agriculture, everything was fine. Research has not proved that the bees were not poisoned by a banned substance, according to them.

According to Ahchieva’s findings, the position of the Ministry of Agriculture is facilitated by the “helpful” conclusion to a finding by the Regional Directorate of Agriculture in Pleven, which says it “cannot conclusively confirm that bee mortality was directly related to the use of thiamethoxam insecticides due to its low content”.

According to chemist Martin Zarbov, who represents the accredited European laboratory “Primoris – Bulgaria”, it does not matter whether the poisonous substance is a lot or a little- it is important to prove that it is present in both dead bees and plant matter.

It turned out that this spring’s mass bee deaths have also happened in the Dobrich and Varna regions. Bulgarian beekeepers even contacted Brussels at the end of last year, raising the issue of the dying bees with EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski, who promised help.

Indeed, a month later, some more nicotinoids were banned from spraying. Yet despite the EU bans, in Bulgaria, they continue to spray them, and those responsible continue to receive millions of euros in European subsidies.

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