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Hive mind: Tunisia beekeepers abuzz over early warning system

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Tunisian beekeeper Elias Chebbi uses a SmartBee device that remotely monitors his hives
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Elias Chebbi inspected a beehive in a field in Tunisia, minutes after a buzz on his phone warned him of a potential problem.

The 39-year-old beekeeper opened a flap in the hive to reveal a low-cost, locally made sensor dedicated to measuring key environmental variables. An app on his phone then warns him if action needs to be taken.

“Thanks to this, I can relax,” he said. “It tells me remotely everything that’s happening.”

Chebbi has two of the sensors, entirely produced in Tunisia by the only company of its kind in North Africa.

He periodically places one in each of the 100 or so hives he keeps, on a grassy hillside an hour’s drive from the capital Tunis.

The devices, each costing under 300 Tunisian dinars (around 92 euros), send live updates on temperature, humidity and the weight of the hive to a central computer.

It then analyses the data and helps him react quickly to potential problems — as well as selecting the most resilient, productive queens for breeding.

That is a major asset as bee colonies face multiple threats, including climate change and increasingly common collapses of entire hives.

– Key role of bees –

Chebbi remembers being stung by a sudden heatwave in 2013, before he started using the system, when he lost around a quarter of his hives.

“I had big losses, 26 hives, because of humidity and the sudden change in temperature,” he said.

But since he started using the SmartBee system — developed in 2020 by a group of young Tunisian engineering graduates — his losses have dropped dramatically, to under 10 percent of his hives in a given year.

He has also boosted his honey production by 30-40 percent.

Today, Khaled Bouchoucha, 34-year-old CEO of manufacturer Beekeeper Tech, says the sensors gather “a huge amount of information on the bees’ yield and the threats they face”. 

The gadgets “gather reliable data in real time, so beekeepers can make good decisions and avoid collapse of their hives”, he said.

This data is then fed wirelessly to the company’s cloud computing system, which analyses it to identify potential problems.

If it does, it sends a warning to the beekeeper to intervene — by cooling overheating hives, adding insulation to those that are dangerously cold, or providing sugar solution to those whose weight shows that they have not produced enough honey to survive the winter.

Beekeeper Tech has sold over 1,000 of the systems, mostly in Tunisia and neighbouring countries.

Bouchoucha says customers are swarming to the app and the firm’s workers are preparing another 1,500 orders for customers in Libya, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and even New Zealand.

– Boosting food security –

Bee populations around the world are facing disaster from overuse of pesticides, mites and temperature extremes due to climate change.

That also spells catastrophe for humans, as we depend on pollination by bees for over a quarter of all the food we consume. 

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, three quarters of the world’s main crops depend on pollinators — but the insects are in decline worldwide, mostly due to human activities.

Beekeeping itself is also a vital livelihood for many.

In Tunisia, with its population of 11 million, the sector employs some 13,000 people and produces some 2,800 tonnes of honey every year, according to its agricultural union.

The FAO marks a World Bee Day every year on May 20 to raise awareness about “the essential role bees and other pollinators play in keeping people and the planet healthy.”

The SmartBee app offers more than an early warning system.

The data it collects also tells beekeepers about the health and productivity of each hive, its resistance to changes in climate.

Mnaouer Djemali, chief scientific officer at the National Agronomic Institute of Tunisia and a co-founder of Beekeeper Tech, said data from the hives “enables us to measure the profitability of each queen” and to select the best for breeding.

“That can help us boost our food security and sovereignty,” he said. “We are sorely in need of that in a world full of diseases and wars.”

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US recession not ‘inevitable,’ Treasury secretary says

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US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen speaks at a policy forum in Washington on June 9, 2022
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A recession in the United States is not “inevitable” but the economy is likely to slow, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said Sunday, days after the US Federal Reserve hiked interest rates, raising fears of a contraction.

“I expect the economy to slow” as it transitions to stable growth, she said on ABC’s “This Week,” but “I don’t think a recession is at all inevitable.”

The US economy has recovered strongly from the damage wrought by Covid-19, but soaring inflation and supply-chain snarls made worse by the war in Ukraine have increased pessimism.

Wall Street stocks tumbled after the US central bank, seeking to cool inflation, on Wednesday raised the benchmark borrowing rate by 0.75 percentage points, the sharpest rise in nearly 30 years.

And economists see worrying signs that consumer confidence is weakening, with spending on services affected most sharply.

People are beginning to hold off on vacation plans — domestic flight bookings were down 2.3 percent last month, Adobe Analytics reported — and are cutting back on restaurant visits, haircuts and home repairs.

– Inflation ‘unacceptably high’ –

Yellen conceded that “clearly inflation is unacceptably high,” attributing it partly to the war in Ukraine, which has pushed up energy and food prices.

But she said she did not believe “a dropoff in consumer spending is the likely cause of a recession.” 

The US labor market is “arguably the strongest of the postwar period,” Yellen said, and she predicted a slowing of inflation in coming months.

For Fed chair Jerome Powell — who succeeded Yellen in that position — to control inflation without weakening the labor market will take “skill and luck,” she said, before adding, “but I believe it’s possible.”

The US economy contracted by 1.5 percent in the first quarter of this year, its first drop since 2020, and early indications point to a continued slowing in key sectors including manufacturing, real estate and retail sales.  

A recent survey of 750 company executives by the Conference Board found 76 percent believed a recession is looming, or has already begun.

A recent analysis from the non-profit business group predicted a period of “stagflation” — stagnant growth coupled with inflation — in 2023.

Economist Larry Summers, who served as Treasury secretary from 1999 to 2001, said a wide range of indicators — market volatility, interest rates and inflation among them — suggest a recession on the horizon.

“All of that tells me that… the dominant probability would be that by the end of next year we would be seeing a recession in the American economy,” Summers told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

– ‘Pain’ at the pump –

For now, Americans are trying to cope with some historically sharp price increases. The cost of gas at the pump, now around $5 a gallon, has roughly doubled in only two years. 

Yellen was asked about proposals for a temporary suspension in federal gas taxes, and expressed openness.

US President Joe Biden “wants to do anything he possibly can to help consumers,” she said. “And that’s an idea that’s certainly worth considering.”

The White House recently confirmed Biden will travel to major oil producer Saudi Arabia during a Mideast trip next month.

The president is “very concerned about what people are experiencing at the pump,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told CNN Sunday. 

“Saudi Arabia is head of OPEC and we need to have increased production so that everyday citizens in America will not be feeling this pain that they’re feeling.”

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US recession not ‘inevitable,’ Treasury secretary says

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US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen speaks at a policy forum in Washington on June 9, 2022
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A recession in the United States is not “inevitable,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said Sunday, just days after the US Federal Reserve hiked interest rates, raising fears of an economic contraction.

“I expect the economy to slow” as it transitions to stable growth, she said on ABC’s “This Week,” but “I don’t think a recession is at all inevitable.”

The US economy has recovered strongly from the damage wrought by Covid-19, but soaring inflation and supply-chain snarls exacerbated by the war in Ukraine have increased pessimism. 

Wall Street stocks tumbled after the US central bank on Wednesday raised the benchmark borrowing rate by 0.75 percentage points, the sharpest rise in nearly 30 years.

And economists see worrying signs that consumer confidence is weakening, with people beginning to hold off on vacation plans, dining out or doing home repairs.

Yellen conceded that “clearly inflation is unacceptably high,” attributing it partly to the war in Ukraine, which has pushed up energy and food prices.

But she said she did not believe that “a dropoff in consumer spending is the likely cause of a recession.” 

Yellen argued that the US labor market is “arguably the strongest of the postwar period” and she predicted that the pace of inflation would slow in coming months.

She acknowledged, however, that as Fed chair Jerome Powell works to control inflation while preserving labor-market strength, “That’s going to take skill and luck.”

Soaring gas prices — at some $5 a gallon, they have roughly doubled in a few years — are a pressing concern for many Americans.

Asked about proposals for a temporary suspension in federal gas taxes, Yellen expressed openness.

US President Joe Biden “wants to do anything he possibly can to help consumers,” she said. “And that’s an idea that’s certainly worth considering.”

As to whether Biden might move further to lower consumer prices by lifting tariffs on Chinese goods, Yellen demurred.

Reworking the Donald Trump-era tariffs “is something that’s under consideration,” she said.

“I don’t want to get ahead of where the policy process is.” 

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Italy’s Eni joins giant Qatar gas project after Russian cuts

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Qatar's Energy Minister and president and CEO of QatarEnergy Saad Sherida al-Kaabi (R) and Claudio Descalzi, CEO of Italian multinational oil and gas company ENI, attend the signing ceremony for their joint venture
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Italian company Eni on Sunday joined Qatar Energy’s project to expand production from the world’s biggest natural gas field, days after Russia slashed supplies to Italy.

Eni will own a stake of just over three percent in the $28 billion North Field East project, Qatar Energy’s CEO said at a signing ceremony in Doha.

Qatar announced France’s TotalEnergies as its first, and largest, foreign partner on the development last week, with a 6.25 percent share. 

More companies are set to be named. 

“Today I’m pleased… to announce the selection of Eni as a partner in this unique strategic project,” said Energy Minister Saad Sherida al-Kaabi, who is also president and CEO of state-owned Qatar Energy.

The project’s LNG — the cooled form of gas that makes it easier to transport — is expected to come on line in 2026. It will help Qatar increase its liquefied natural gas production by more than 60 percent by 2027, TotalEnergies chief executive Patrick Pouyanne told AFP last week.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has injected urgency into efforts around the world to develop new energy sources as Western countries try to reduce their reliance on Russia.

On Friday, Eni said it would receive only 50 percent of the gas requested from Russia’s Gazprom, the third day running of reduced supplies. Rome has accused Gazprom of peddling “lies” over the cuts.

“We have a lot of things to learn from your leadership and also from your standards and from your ability to adapt to very difficult circumstances,” Eni CEO Claudio Descalzi told his Qatari counterpart.

Qatar Energy estimates that the North Field, which extends under the Gulf sea into Iranian territory, holds about 10 percent of the world’s known gas reserves.

Kaabi refused to divulge how many more partners will be announced. Industry sources have discussed ExxonMobil, Shell and ConocoPhillips, while Bloomberg reported this week that Chinese companies were in talks.

South Korea, Japan and China have become the main markets for Qatar’s LNG but since an energy crisis hit Europe last year, the Gulf state has helped Britain with extra supplies and also announced a cooperation deal with Germany.

Europe has in the past rejected the long-term deals that Qatar seeks for its energy but the Ukraine conflict has forced a change in attitude.

“Qatar is the lowest cost source of supply at the moment and  therefore it’s attractive to the majors (companies),” Daniel Toleman, an analyst at resources consultancy Wood Mackenzie, told AFP.

“So these companies want to be involved in those projects.”

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