Photograph by Lino Mirgeler, picture alliance/Getty Images
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Activists dressed as bees stand in the Marienplatz in Munich, Germany, during the rally to launch the 'Save the bees' petition.

Photograph by Lino Mirgeler, picture alliance/Getty Images

Bavarians vote to save bugs and birds—and change farming

In the face of plummeting insect and bird populations, citizens in the south German state are trying to make farmers preserve habitat.

Editor's Note: This story originally published on February 11, 2018. It has been updated to reflect the fact that the petition has obtained enough signatures to send it to the Bavarian legislature.

For the past two weeks Bavarians have been standing in lines, sometimes quite long ones, to sign a petition designed to save bees, other bugs, and the birds that eat them.

Weeks before carnival festivities officially plunge Germany into silly season, adults in bee costumes have been a common site on the streets of this south German state. In Erlangen a few elderly ones lay on their backs on the freezing pavement and pumped their arms and legs to simulate bee agony. In Munich’s Marienplatz on January 31, a crowd that had gathered to launch the “Save the Bees” petition also attempted to set a world record for sustained mass buzzing.

The petition itself is not light-hearted, however. Nor is it simply a high-minded statement of principle. It consists of four pages of detailed amendments to Bavaria’s nature protection law which, taken together, would fundamentally change how farming is done in the state, with the overall goal of creating a connected web of wildlife-friendly habitat.

One amendment, for example, would require farmers to spare hedges and trees. Another would preserve five-meter-wide (16-foot) stripes of habitat on stream- and river-banks. Perhaps the most important would commit Bavaria to a goal of farming 30 percent of the state’s agricultural land organically, without chemical pesticides or fertilizers, by 2030.

Conventional farmers in Bavaria are by and large not thrilled.

By February 13, the last day on which voters could line up at town halls around the state to endorse the petition, organizers reported that more than a million people had done so—easily exceeding the threshold of 10 percent of Bavaria’s registered voters that are needed to send the petition to the state legislature. The legislature must now either enact the petition or propose an alternative—with the final choice being made by voters in a special referendum later this year.

A coalition of conservation groups has recently called for the world to adopt a goal of protecting 30 percent of the whole planet by 2030 in order to preserve biodiversity. Bavarian supporters of the petition see themselves as pursuing a similar purpose at home—in a state that is the bastion of German political conservatism. The Christian Social Union, the right-wing party that has dominated Bavarian politics since World War II, and which had opposed the petition, will now be obliged to negotiate with the organizers, starting next week.

“In Bavaria there are many people who are actively engaged in protecting nature,” says Hans-Josef Fell, a prominent Green Party politician in Hammelburg who signed the petition but did not help organize the campaign. “They all see that humans are causing a dramatic disappearance of species in the world, the likes of which haven’t occurred on the planet since the extinction of the dinosaurs. They all want to counter that loss of biodiversity.”

Insect armageddon

Honeybees get a lot of attention, but they’re essentially a domestic species, not a wild one—their population depends heavily on beekeepers. Although the number of bee colonies in Bavaria and elsewhere in Germany is lower than it was 30 years ago, it has been rising in recent years, as more people are taking up beekeeping again, often as a hobby.

“It’s not really about the honeybee,” said Agnes Becker in a televised debate last week. Becker is a leader of the Ecological Democratic Party, the tiny party that initiated the petition drive, in partnership with the Greens and with the Bavarian Association for Bird Protection. “The bee is our little mascot, our symbol," she said. "But it stands for a very long and ever lengthening list of threatened animal and plant species.”

Recent research on both insects and birds has been alarming. A German study in 2017 reviewed insect survey data from 63 protected areas around the country; it found that the total mass of flying insects had declined by 76 percent over 27 years. That’s cataclysmic enough, but another study published last fall found even greater declines in insects in one Puerto Rican rainforest—and also in the lizards, frogs, and birds that eat insects.

Bird populations are falling in Europe too. The day after the German study was published in 2017, the German Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union, or NABU, released a survey based on government data estimating that the country had lost more than 15 percent of its songbirds, a total of more than 12 million breeding pairs, between 1998 and 2009. The number of starlings alone declined by 2.6 million pairs.

A similar decline has been observed in France, and it has affected birds that are adapted to farmland most of all. Since 1989 the populations of 24 species of farmland birds in France have dropped by 33 percent, with the decline accelerating in the past few years.

Worldwide, according to a review published February 10 in the journal Biological Conservation, more than 40 percent of all insect species are in danger of extinction. Hardest hit are the groups that include bees and wasps, moths and butterflies, and dung beetles.

Pesticides are one threat to insects, of course. Last April the European Union banned the open spraying of three neonicotinoid pesticides that had been shown to harm honeybees. But the problem is more systemic, according to the Biological Conservation review and other research. The main driver of insect declines is loss of habitat, as land is farmed intensively or paved over in cities.

The people legislates

The Bavarian constitution says “Laws are adopted by the Landtag [the state house of representatives] or by the people.” The Ecological Democratic Party, which got less than two percent of the vote in the 2018 elections and thus has no seats in the state house, has shown itself to be a master of the direct-democracy option. A petition it launched in 1997 led to the abolition of the state senate—a mostly powerless institution, to be sure, but one that had persisted for four decades. Another petition in 2010 yielded a statewide smoking ban in bars and restaurants.

The effort to reform Bavarian agriculture may prove just as consequential. In addition to preventing farmers from chopping down hedges and trees, the people's petition would forbid the conversion of grasslands—pastures and hay meadows—to other agricultural uses. It would prohibit mowing large meadows from the outside in (which may trap creatures in the middle), and it would require that 10 percent of the meadows in the state remain unmown until June 15, so that wildflowers would have a chance to bloom and nourish insects.

To critics, including the state farmers’ federation and the agriculture minister, all this smacks of a “planned economy,” that is, of socialism—anathema in Bavaria. Farmers feel attacked by the petition and scapegoated for a problem that they say transcends agriculture.

Arno Zengerle is not a farmer, but he is the mayor of a small farming town, Wildpoldsried, in the foothills of the Alps. Under Zengerle’s leadership it has become a green-energy leader that, thanks to its wind turbines, solar panels, and biogas reactors, produces five times as much energy as it consumes. His town has also voluntarily invested considerably in wildflower meadows, he says. The save-the-bees petition is not his kind of green.

“Everybody wants to save the bees,” Zengerle says. “But what’s actually planned is to impose additional obligations on farmers, who already suffer under considerable bureaucratic burdens. In my view it will lead to more small farmers giving up their farms and renting or selling their land to larger operations.”

Now that the people’s petition has been adopted, the state legislature will have a chance to modify the terms and reassure critics, proponents say—while holding onto the central point of the petition: Farming has to change if insect and bird habitat is to be preserved.

Karin Staffler, a beekeeper in Augsburg, sees the petition as a last chance. “If we wait until the whole world joins in, we’ll be waiting until there’s nothing left to save,” she wrote in an opinion piece in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, a Munich-based national daily. “We’ve all been standing by and watching for too long, now time is running away from us.”