The research – which for the first time gathered comparable data from 17 EU member states – was presented as part of a European Commission conference on bee health.
Presenting the research, Marie-Pierre Chauzat, deputy head of EU Reference Laboratory for bee health created by the Commission in 2011, said there had been “drastic peaks” in 2003 and 2008 due to particularly weather in Denmark, Finland and Germany, however overall the Commission said the problem of honeybee decline was “less dramatic than first thought”.
The Commission said its decision last year to ban certain bee-harming pesticides was based on data available at the time, but did not give indication of whether this new data giving a rosier outlook would change that stance which has been met with some industry criticism.
The research is in part EFSA’s response to calls for investigation into declining bee populations. Fears over this influence on food production have been circulating in the research community and the media for some years, the latter often drawing on Albert Einstein’s famous assertion that: "If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, man would have only four years to live.”
Bee health can be affected by a number of factors including climate change, disease and pesticides.
Brr, bee-by it’s cold outside
The surveillance study that covered over 31,832 colonies from autumn 2012 to summer 2013 showed significant regional differences. Chauzat said: “The conclusion of this report showed that there was a diversity of approaches and operational means in Europe and some weakness in systems implemented.”
Meanwhile the Commission said: “Winter colony mortality rates ranged from 3.5% to 33.6% with a North/South geographical pattern. Overall rates of seasonal colony mortality during beekeeping season were lower than winter mortality and ranged from 0.3% to 13.6%.”
Chauzat told attendees that of the 17 member states – which accounted for 80% of Europe’s bee population – rates of winter colony mortality were below the acceptable base line of 10% in Lithuania, Greece, Spain and Italy. Meanwhile this rate stood at 10-20% in countries including Portugal, Latvia, Poland, Germany and France and above 20% in the UK, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, the Netherlands and Denmark.
She said 35% of the 17 member states were above this 20% rate, saying: “Which we think is not acceptable.” These countries represent 6% of the total European bee population, she said.
The researchers also looked at disease factors within this random sample. Again they found geographical differences, with the American foulbrood disease being particularly prevalent in France, Latvia and Estonia and lowest in Germany, Belgium and the UK. Meanwhile Varroa mite detection peaked in Latvia and Poland but was very low in Finland and the spore-forming parasite Nosema was highest in Poland by far.
The Commission said that data would continue to be collected in 2013/14 in order to gain further insights into mortality trends, while Chauzat expressed the hope that this initial research could form the basis for routine surveillance.
The research is part of the Commission’s € 33,100.000 a year commitment to national apiculture (beekeeping) programmes running 2014-2016.
“We eat more honey than we produce and honeybees take an active part in the pollination of crops. For several years, the EU has been providing support to the beekeeping sector, essentially through national apiculture programmes and rural development programmes,” the Commission said.
“For pesticides the Commission further strengthened the data requirements for the submission of the dossiers, reviewed together with the EFSA the risk assessment scheme concerning the impact of pesticides on bees and took actions on 4 specific insecticides where a risk concerning bees was identified,” it said.
Last year, EU Member States voted in favour of continent-wide ban of neonicotinoid pesticides that had been linked to bee deaths.
In response to a question on whether these results would change the Commission’s stance on neonicotinoids, it said: “The Commission based its decision on new scientific information which became available in 2012 and on which EFSA was asked for an assessment. EFSA identified high risks for bees for some uses of three neonicotinoids (Imidacloprid, Clothianidin and Thiametoxam) and Fipronil. This assessment confirmed that the approval criteria of these pesticides were no longer satisfied. Furthermore, EPILOBEE did not take into account bumble bees and solitary bees, which are also affected by the pesticides and covered by the EFSA assessment. At the time the measures were taken, the results of the EPILOBEE programme were not yet available.”
Responding to the ban at the time, an NGO that monitors lobbying activities, Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), said there had been aggressive lobbying from certain members of the food industry against the bee-protecting ban.