A landmark study has revealed the UK is suffering one of the worst rates of honeybee colony deaths in Europe.
In the cold winter of 2012-13, 29% of honeybee colonies in the UK died, with only Belgium suffering a higher rate of losses (34%) of the 17 countries surveyed. By contrast, only 5% of colonies in Italy were lost. Summer losses of colonies were also high in the UK, at 9.7%, with only France (14%) exceeding this.
The Epilobee study surveyed 31,800 colonies and is the first pan-European assessment of the rate of colony deaths. It provides a valuable baseline for future research but does not indicate the relative effects of factors such as disease, habitat loss and pesticide use in honeybee decline. Neither does it examine why some countries are worse affected.
The European Commission said the study revealed mortality rates were better than had been expected. "These data show that, while higher bee colony mortalities do exist in some parts of the EU, bees are neither disappearing, nor is colony collapse disorder taking place."
But the study noted that it did not assess wild pollinators which, alongside honeybees, are vital in pollinating three-quarters of all food crops. "Scientific data on wild pollinators, including wild bees is scarce, but current indicators show a worrying decline. Preliminary results [of other research] already suggest that wild bees face a serious threat," said an EC statement. A recent European assessment of bumblebees indicated a quarter of the 68 species were threatened with extinction.
"While overwintering honeybee colony losses in Europe are variable and sometimes considered unacceptable, on the whole they are still much lower than in the US," said Prof Simon Potts from the University of Reading.
Professor David Goulson, a biologist at the University of Sussex, criticised the report: "It does seem odd that the EC spent over €3m on a project on bee health and the words pesticide and insecticide are not used once in the document."
The commission banned the use of specific insecticides linked to serious harm in bees from December 2013. The EC had requested that pesticide monitoring was included in the Epilobee project. It had requested that pesticide monitoring was included in the Epilobee project but, it said, experts from member states did not consider it "feasible" to do so.
The UK was one of a minority of nations to oppose the insecticide ban.