Bee health: How EFSA is helping to protect our pollinators

EFSA is liaising with the European Commission as well as the French Health and Safety Agency (Anses) following the publication of two new scientific studies in the journal Science which suggest that pesticides – specifically neonicotinoids – may be linked to the decline of the honey bee. EFSA will analyse the significance of these findings in the context of its ongoing work on bee health.

EFSA’s scientific experts are currently engaged in several scientific projects related to bee health, principally in the areas of pesticides, animal and plant health, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Bees, particularly honey bees, play an important role in the pollination of a wide range of crops and wild plants. The production of about 80% of the 264 crop species cultivated in the European Union depends directly on insect pollinators, mostly bees, and the global annual monetary value of pollination is estimated to be billions of dollars.

In addition to pollination, bees also provide us with foods and food services, such as: honey, pollen, larvae, wax for food processing, propolis in food technology, and royal jelly as a dietary supplement and ingredient in food.

Given the importance of bees in the ecosystem and the food chain and given the multiple services they provide to humans, their protection is essential. With its mandate to improve EU food safety and to ensure a high level of consumer protection, EFSA has an important role to play in ensuring their survival.

In line with EFSA’s desire to consider risk assessments in a wider integrated manner to provide risk managers with comprehensive advice on which to base their decisions, the Authority is currently drawing up plans for a “state-of-the-art” review. The primary aim is to identify areas which would benefit from a more integrated approach in assessing the risks to bees and the services they provide to humans.

The centrepiece of the Authority’s work in this area is a guidance document on the risk assessment of plant protection products on bees (Apis mellifera, Bombus spp. and solitary bees), which will be published this year. EFSA’s advice was requested by the European Commission in 2011 after MEPs and beekeeper associations voiced concerns about the appropriateness of the current risk assessment scheme. The guidance will be preceded by another important document: an opinion on the science behind the development of a risk assessment of plant protection products on bees, which will be completed by the end of April.

EFSA’s Pesticides Panel has also commissioned a literature review on topics of relevance to the revision of the guidance documents on aquatic and terrestrial ecotoxicology. In respect to bees, an overview of available scientific information on interactions between pesticides and other factors was requested and should be made available by mid-2012.

Experts from EFSA’s Animal Health and Welfare, Plant Health and Emerging Risks panels and units are currently drafting a scientific opinion on the risk of introduction and spread of the small hive beetle (Aethina tumida) and the Tropilaelaps bee mite in the EU. The small hive beetle can be a destructive pest of honey bee colonies, causing damage to comb, stored honey and pollen. A heavy beetle infestation can cause bees to abandon their hive.

The GMO Panel has also been active in this area, having recently assessed the food/feed safety of GM oil seed rape and MON810 maize pollen and honey containing trace GM pollens.

In data collection, EFSA has been collecting information on the prevalence of honeybee colony losses and the surveillance systems currently being used in the 27 EU Member States.

In addition, EFSA was mandated by the Commission this month to assess the science behind Italy’s precautionary suspension of the placing on the market of treated maize seeds. The Authority has been requested to deliver a statement on the results of an Italian research project (APENET) within three months.

EFSA’s Emerging Risks specialists recently participated in a working group set up by ANSES, the French national food safety agency, to review a scientific paper on the interaction of pathogens and pesticides on honey bee mortalities and to ensure closer scientific collaboration between EFSA and ANSES on the risk assessment of bees.

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