European Bee Week: What the EU should do for bees and biodiversity

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Honey and other bee products from Bulgaria on display in front of the European Parliament. [Georgi Gotev]

While it has already taken some action, the EU still has a lot of work to do to protect bees and other pollinators and, thus, improve food security and preserve biodiversity, writes Daniel Penev.

Daniel Penev is a young Bulgarian journalist.

Launched by former MEP Gaston Franco in 2012, the European Week of Bees and Pollination brings together representatives of European and national institutions, beekeepers, farmers, researchers, animal health specialists, NGOs and industry experts together. Through discussions, they can exchange views, discuss recent developments in the beekeeping sector and urge policy-makers to address specific problems.

“Bees give a unique service to the entire mankind,” MEP Mariya Gabriel (EPP, Bulgaria) said during the 2016 European Week of Bees and Pollination, which she hosted at the European Parliament in Brussels on 13-14 June. She added that pollinators are “a gift of nature” that “we need to cherish”.

Running under the motto “Bees caring for Europeans. Europeans caring for bees?” this year’s conference gathered together beekeepers and farmers from a large number of EU member states, from Bulgaria to Belgium and from Slovenia to Sweden. They participated in a Beekeepers and Farmers Forum on Monday. (13 June) On Tuesday, they attended two panels – on pollination and environmental challenges and on the need to find a sustainable model of cooperation between beekeeping and farming – where they could exchange opinions and proposals for action with EP and European Commission representatives. Participants and guests also visited the Bee Village in front of the EP where they learned about bees’ contribution to biodiversity while tasting different types of honey.

“Investing in the protection of bees is ultimately investing in ourselves. Of all the possible investments, this is the one with the highest rate of return,” said Daniel Calleja Crespo, Director-General for Environment in the European Commission, during the official opening ceremony.

Prince Albert II of Monaco, a supporter of the conference and keynote speaker at the opening ceremony, agreed with Crespo, saying that “it is urgent to find a solution for bees and all of us”.

While many European citizens tend to associate bees only with honey, bees provide humanity with far more important services.

About three-quarters of food crops in the world depend to some extent on pollination. Bees alone are responsible for the pollination of more than 30% of global food production. According to Prof. Pierre Rasmont from Université  de Mons, Europe is home to 1,965 wild bee species. Honeybees play a major role, he said, because they are the most abundant pollinators worldwide. Laurence Bonafos from the European Commission pointed out that there are approximately 600,000 beekeepers and 16 million beehives in the EU. Noteworthy, as Mariya Gabriel said, pollinators as a whole contribute EUR 22 billion to European agriculture.

In light of the many ways in which bees and pollination benefit humans, the news about dramatic bee colony declines in recent years are a major source of concern. Extinction rates range from 9% up to 30% across the continent, said Philip McCabe, president of Apimondia, the International Federation of Beekeepers’ Associations. The actual percentage of endangered bee species may be as high as 60%, some of the conference participants said, since researchers lack sufficient data for more than half of all bee species in the world.

Bees, however, are not the only pollinators that are disappearing. According to the European Commission’s Laure Ledou, 9% of all butterflies and 13% of all birds face extinction. To make things worse, pollinator-dependent crops have increased by 300% in the past 50 years, Ledoux said.

The large variability in honeybee colony losses across time and spare can be explained with the multifactorial nature of the problem. The Beekeepers and Farmers Forum identified several challenges that demand urgent action: diseases like Varroa mite, the use of plant-protection products, food shortages, climate change, market-related problems such as honey labeling and the import of low-quality products, and an inadequate system of knowledge generation and transfer. The forum urged the EU to consider declaring bees an endangered species and called on beekeepers and farmers to increase their cooperation.

Unlike most conferences, the 2016 European Week of Bees and Pollination produced several very concrete proposals for action aimed at protecting bees and the beekeeping sector.

First, the EU institutions should review the CAP to recognize the role bees and other pollinators play in ensuring food security, promote biodiversity and expand existing support instruments.

Second, European policy-makers need to adopt clearer legislation on plant-protection products, especially neonicotinoids, and ensure its proper application. The European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) is now reviewing the impact of the restrictions on the use of clothianidin, thiamethoxam and imidacloprid, which were introduced in 2013. EFSA plans to complete its assessment by January 2017.

Third, the EU should invest more in research and the fight against Varroa, other diseases and invasive species. According to participants, the European institutions need to foster the exchange of research findings, expertise and best practices. One possible option in this area is the creation of a brand-new, easy-to-navigate European platform. A participant from Italy suggested that pollen collected by honeybees can help identify environmental pressures and, possibly, levels of contamination. In addition to supporting research, the EU also needs to ensure the effective transfer of scientific knowledge into practice.

Fourth, policy-makers should provide equal access to medicines across the EU. Currently, prices vary from one member state to another, which harms the EU’s competitiveness.

Finally, beekeepers, farmers, policy-makers, and industry and NGO representatives should join efforts to raise the public’s awareness on bees, beekeeping and pollination. Slovenia has already proposed that the United Nations introduce the World Bee Day, to be celebrated on 20 May each year. Another possibility is expanding the Honey Breakfast project, which has proved successful in raising awareness among children in Slovenia, to all EU countries. The European Parliament and the European Commission have already put up an initiative in support of both proposals.