The EU executive yesterday (6 December) adopted a communication on honeybee health, giving an overview of the key issues related to bee health and outlining EU-level initiatives and actions undertaken in recent months.
As bees play a crucial role in pollination, "the disappearance of bees could mean fewer types, as well as a lower yield, of crops, fruits or flowers," the Commission warned.
The European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group in the European Parliament stressed that "76% of food production and 84% of plant species are dependent on pollination by bees". "Bees are indispensable for food production," said British ECR MEP Julie Girling.
While pollination can be carried out by other insects, the Commission points out that these are also disappearing. The EU executive underlined that there is "a more general decline of some other insects," such as butterflies, wild bumblebees and hoverflies, probably because "their habitats have shrunk or have been affected by adverse effects on the environment over the years".
Pesticides, GM crops to blame?
A 2009 report by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) on bee mortality and bee surveillance in Europe suggests that there are many factors involved in the causes of the decline in the bee population. In its study, the agency considered the following: bee diseases and pests, pesticide poisoning, the impact of genetically-modified crops, and stress linked to changes in nutrition and climatic conditions.
However, the Commission said "the leading cause remains unknown at this stage" and called for more research to be carried out. It also suggested setting up a programme to monitor bees in the EU to ascertain the precise magnitude of the losses.
While the link between increased bee mortality and the cultivation of GM crops has been widely reported, the Commission underlines that "no difference has been recorded" between areas where GM crops are extensively cultivated and areas in which they are much less common or prohibited.
"This situation does not support the hypothesis that increased bee mortality is related to an increase in the cultivation of GMOs," the Commission said, adding nonetheless that it would still continue to closely follow any developments in this area.
As for the use of pesticides, current EU laws stipulate that pesticides must be approved if their use does not have a detrimental effect on bees. But local honeybee incidents still occur when, for example, farmers spread pesticides on fields during the afternoon, when bees are outside pollinating.
According to the EFSA study, "high concentrations of pesticides have rarely been identified as having any correlation with colony losses, although acute events of pesticide toxicity have been identified during the production season".