EFSA initiates pan-European research project on bee decline

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has awarded a grant of €100,000 to a consortium of European scientific institutes [1] to study so-called “Colony Collapse Disorder” (or CCD [2]) in honey bees. 

The 9-month project – which is being co-ordinated by EFSA’s Assessment Methodology Unit and is due to begin in January 2009 – aims to identify factors which may contribute to CCD and to highlight gaps in scientific knowledge in order to help guide future research. It will also analyse existing bee surveillance programmes and assess the suitability of the data for measuring CCD across Europe.

Hubert Deluyker, EFSA’s Director of Scientific Cooperation and Assistance, said: “This project will be an important step forward in international efforts to understand and help tackle the reported decline in bee populations, which could have widespread implications not only in environmental terms but also with regard to the food chain”.

“I strongly encourage scientists and other interested parties – such as beekeeping associations, for example – to share their valuable scientific data, knowledge and experience with the organisers of this project,” he added.

Honey bees play an important role in the pollination of crops and a decline in bee populations could have a serious impact on agricultural production. Since 2003, there have been reports of serious losses of bees from beehives in Europe, but the true extent of the losses is hard to estimate as data collection is fragmented and surveillance methodologies are diverse. The cause of CCD is not known, although various factors are thought to be responsible including starvation, viruses, mites, pesticide exposure and climate change.

A preliminary survey of the situation in Europe – looking at honey production, chemical residues in honey and existing surveillance programmes – was completed by EFSA in August 2008. A report was subsequently published by EFSA’s Assessment Methodology Unit, based on information provided by 22 European countries. This project is intended to build upon the findings of that report.

In line with Article 36 of its Founding Regulation, EFSA regularly provides grants to partner organisations, nominated by the EU member states, in order to help EFSA in areas such as data collection and other preparatory work for the development of its opinions, as well as providing scientific and technical support. Since the launch of the scheme in 2007, some 25 such grants have so far been agreed or are currently in negotiation, worth a total of around €3.5million.

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FAQs on bee mortality and bee surveillance in Europe

What is Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)?
The term Colony Collapse Disorder was first used in 2006 to describe the rapid loss of adult bees from a bee colony (beehive). At the final stages of collapse, the queen is only accompanied by a few newly-emerged adult bees and no dead adult bees are found inside or in close proximity to the hive. Recent research has found that affected hives often have capped brood (pupae sealed in cells by mature bees to isolate them during their nonfeeding period) and food reserves, meaning that the reason for the collapse is not immediately clear.

What are the possible causes of CCD?
It is likely that there will not be one single cause of CCD but that a combination of factors contributes to colony losses from beehives. For example, honey bee colonies are affected by a range of parasites, bacteria or viruses which can cause disease and mortality, the Varroa destructor mite being of particular concern . There have also been reports of poisoning incidents in bees due to the use of neonicotinoid insecticides as plant protection products. Other environmental factors which may contribute to CCD include prolonged spells of wet weather and lack of access to suitable forage crops, both of which can cause starvation in bees.

Is CCD a new phenomenon?
Some literature suggests that large-scale losses of bee colonies are not new to the bee keeping industry as many of the symptoms exhibited by CCD-affected colonies have been described before. According to research from the Pennsylvania State University, some of the earliest records date from as early as 1869 with affected countries including the US, Australia, Mexico, France, Sweden and Germany. To a certain extent, colony collapse is a recognised hazard in beekeeping and it is not unusual for hives with a low level of viability to collapse during over wintering. However, it is the reported scale of recent losses which is now causing concern.

What are the consequences of declining bee populations?
Bees play an important role in the pollination of crops including the large majority of vegetables produced in Europe, so a decline in honey bee populations could have a serious impact on agricultural production.

Why is EFSA involved?
EFSA deals not only with food safety as such, but also with a number of related issues including the health and welfare of animals and plants. EFSA also has the networks, experience and expertise needed to gather and interpret data from a wide range of sources in order to help national and European decision-makers take coordinated action to deal with international issues such as CCD.

How was EFSA’s report on bee mortality and bee surveillance carried out and what did it conclude?
In March 2008, the Agence Française de Securite des Aliments (Afssa) contacted EFSA seeking information on pesticide residue levels in honey and surveillance programmes monitoring collapse, weakening and mortality in bees, as well as data on honey production levels in the EU. Using its network of National Focal Points , EFSA distributed a short questionnaire to national authorities requesting data. Responses received from 22 member states plus Norway and Switzerland provided the basis for the report on  Bee Mortality and Bee Surveillance in Europe  published in August 2008 by EFSA’s Assessment Methodology Unit.

Seventeen bee surveillance programmes were identified in sixteen countries. Frequently, these programmes were organised by associations or federations of beekeepers. Reported mortality rates were in the range of 7-50%. Italy reported the highest mortality rate at between 40-50% in 2007. The different outcomes recorded by the surveillance programmes and the different methodologies used to assess bee mortality make the mortality figures difficult to compare. In order to build on the findings of the report, EFSA subsequently launched a call for proposals for an EU-wide collective study in the area of CCD under Article 36 of its founding regulation.

What is the aim of collective study on CCD launched by EFSA?
The project has three main objectives: firstly, to describe and critically analyse existing surveillance programmes; secondly, to compile data on colony collapse, weakening and mortality stemming from existing surveillance programmes; finally, to carry out a critical review of scientific literature on the possible causes of colony collapse. The final report from the 9-month project will facilitate future EU level research and surveillance programmes addressing the phenomenon of CCD.

How does the “Article 36” procedure work?
According to Article 36 of EFSA’s founding regulation , EU member states have provided a list of competent national organisations which are capable of assisting EFSA in various areas of its work. Partner organisations included in this list can apply for grants to work on specific projects, either individually or as part of a group. In this particular case, EFSA has awarded a grant to an international consortium of research institutes but a number of other interested parties which are not formally part of the group will also take part in the project.

Further information

[1] The consortium is led by the Agence française de sécurité sanitaire des aliments (Afssa) in partnership with the UK’s Central Science Laboratory (CSL) and the French Institut national de la recherche agronomique (INRA). Five other national institutes will collaborate in the project: the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, the Instituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale delle Venezie (Italy), the Swiss Bee Research Institute, the Agricultural Institute of Slovenia and the Chemischese und Veterinaruntersuchungsamt Freiburg (Germany). Experts from these national institutes are members of the COLOSS network, a European project which aims to explain and prevent large scale losses of honeybee colonies.
[2] In 2006 the term CCD was first used to describe serious losses of bees from beehives, characterised by the rapid loss from a colony of its adult bee population.

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