EU scientists attempt to crack the nut on falling bee populations


The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has launched a review of scientific studies and risk assessments related to the decline in bee populations worldwide and in Europe. A final report next year will identify information gaps and research needs in the field.

Bees are some of nature’s most prolific pollinators but their numbers have been declining for years, a fall blamed on a host of environmental risks – including agricultural chemicals and loss of natural habitat.

Earlier this month, an article in the scientific journal Nature raised fresh concerns about the effect two common crop insecticides have on bees.

The author, Juliet L. Osborne of the University of Exeter in Britain, said recent research linking the use of chemical insecticides to declining bumblebee populations merits fresh regulatory review. In the Nature article, she said “the balance between protecting crops from pest damage and protecting pollinators needs further consideration.”

Previous scientific studies have focused on a smaller species, the honey bee, with similar warnings about the impacts of agricultural chemicals.

Policymakers are under the gun to require farmers to develop buffers that nurture plant and wildlife diversity, sparking a debate in the EU over whether to make such policies obligatory in the post-2013 Common Agricultural Policy.

Ben Woodcock, of the British National Environment Research Council, argues that buffers and other habitats reduce the need for pesticides and fertilisers, help improve soil quality and make farmland more productive.

Referring to the role of bees and birds as pollinators, Woodcock told EURACTIV: “If you keep damaging crop land, if you keep reducing the overall area of semi-natural habitats, these ecosystem services will actually decline.”

Woodcock, of the council’s Centre’s for Ecology and Hydrology, testified at a European Parliament conference last month that such buffers areas are good for productivity.

Meanwhile, a recently launched programme supported through European Union research funds seeks to encourage farmers to protect bees and other insect pollinators.

The Status and Trends of European Pollinators, or STEP programme, says bees and other pollinating insects are vital to the production of 84% of Europe’s crops, including fruits, vegetables and herbs. But the organisation notes that 16% of honeybee colonies have disappeared over a generation due to loss of habitat, disease and the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides.

EFSA report due in 2013

EFSA established a task force to review hundreds of scientific reports on threats to bee populations. The findings will now be assessed by EFSA’s scientific experts with their assessment to be published next year.

“With its mandate to improve EU food safety and to ensure a high level of consumer protection, EFSA has a responsibility to protect bees and the ecosystem services they provide to humans,” EFSA said in a statement.

The second EFSA report on bees for next year will build on the review of EFSA’s activities on bee-related risk assessment activities and research carried out by national, European and international bodies such as the French food safety agency Anses, the European Commission, the European Environment Agency and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The European Food Safety Authority, said in a statement: “The ultimate goal of the project is to improve EFSA’s ability to provide risk managers with comprehensive advice in the area of bee health, particularly by identifying information gaps and research needs.”

Commenting on new research published by Nature, Paul de Zylva of Friends of the Earth in Britain: “The evidence linking pesticides to bee decline is mounting – the government must urgently re-write its feeble draft Pesticides Action Plan to protect our endangered bee populations.

“This new research showing that bees are harmed by a cocktail of chemicals mustn’t be dismissed – it should sting the Government into taking decisive action to protect British bees and other important pollinators.”

The European Crop Protection Association (ECPA), which represents pesticides manufacturers, says the decline in bee population has been linked to various factors – including pesticides but also harmful parasites, climate change, habitat loss, diseases, and even mobile telephone signals.

"Where the honey bee is concerned, the parasitic Varroa mite has been identified as the single biggest specific threat to honey bee populations," ECPA said.

ECPA does recognise that, in "a limited number of cases [...] bee mortality resulted from the use of insecticide" but said that these were "linked to the inappropriate use of insecticidal products".

"It is clear that these isolated cases cannot be linked to a general decline in honey bee population. These incidents have been thoroughly investigated and as a result, obligatory, additional risk mitigation measures were adopted at the European level."

The EU-funded STEP programme recommends several ways farmers can protect bee populations:

  • Try to avoid those pesticides known to have negative impacts on bees;
  • Reduce the use of herbicides which suppress flowering plants;
  • Leave uncultivated flower rich patches in farmland where pollinators can benefit from flowers and nesting resources;
  • Plant mass-flowering crops (oilseed, clover and field beans) as part of rotations to provide extra nectar and pollen for bees and other insects.
  • 2013: EFSA to publish report on bee health.

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