Bee health

Beekeeping is an ancient tradition, and honey bees have been kept in Europe for several millennia. Bees are critically important in the environment, sustaining biodiversity by providing essential pollination for a wide range of crops and wild plants. They contribute to human wealth and wellbeing directly through the production of honey and other food and feed supplies such as: pollen, wax for food processing, propolis in food technology, and royal jelly as a dietary supplement and ingredient in food.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that of the 100 crop species that provide 90% of food worldwide, 71 are pollinated by bees[1]. The majority of crops grown in the European Union depend on insect pollination. Beyond the essential value of pollination to maintaining biodiversity, the global annual monetary value of pollination has been estimated at hundreds of billions of euros.

In view of the important ecological and economic value of bees, there is a need to monitor and maintain healthy bee stocks, not just locally or nationally, but globally.

Bees in decline

Over the past 10 to 15 years, beekeepers have been reporting unusual weakening of bee numbers and colony losses, particularly in Western European countries including France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain. In North America, colony losses observed since 2005 have left the region with fewer kept bees than at any time in the past 50 years. American scientists have coined the term Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) to describe this phenomenon. CCD is often characterised by the rapid loss from a colony of its adult worker bee population.

No single cause of declining bee numbers has been identified. However, several possible contributing factors have been suggested, acting in combination or separately. These include the effects of intensive agriculture and pesticide use, starvation and poor bee nutrition, viruses, attacks by pathogens and invasive species – such as the Varroa mite (Varroa destructor), the Asian hornet (Vespa velutina), the small hive beetle Aethina tumida and the bee mite Tropilaelaps – genetically modified plants, and environmental changes (e.g. habitat fragmentation and loss).

In May 2012, as part of its strategy for tackling declining bee numbers, the European Commission allocated €3.3 million to support 17 Member States carrying out surveillance studies aimed at gathering further information on losses of honey bee colonies. The commitment follows a report, Bee Mortality and Bee Surveillance in Europe, commissioned by EFSA which concluded that surveillance systems in the EU are weak and that there is a shortage of data at Member State level and a lack of comparable data at EU level (see EFSA’s activities).

EFSA's role

EFSA has an important role to play in ensuring that healthy bee stocks are maintained in Europe, given its mandate to improve EU food safety and animal health and to ensure a high level of consumer protection. A number of the Authority’s Scientific Panels and Units contribute to this work, principally in the areas of pesticides, animal health and welfare and plant health, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), data collection and scientific assessment.

Central to this work are the assessments EFSA carries out of the environmental safety of pesticides and GMOs that manufacturers would like to place on the EU market. EFSA’s Pesticides Unit is responsible for the peer review of risk assessments of active substances used in plant protection products. The dossiers submitted by applicants must contain comprehensive information on the potential risk to the environment posed by their products.

The Unit also carries out risk assessments of Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs) of active substances in pesticides. These assessments take account of the potential effects of the substances on the environment in general and on non-target organisms such as bees in particular. The Unit compiles the annual European Union Report on Pesticide Residues in Food, which gives an overview of the control activities performed in the 27 EU Member States and two EFTA countries (Iceland and Norway) in order to ensure compliance of food with the standards defined in European legislation on pesticide residues. The most recent report, for 2009, shows that only 0.1% of honey samples contained pesticides which exceeded MRLS.

EFSA’s Panel on Plant Protection Products and their Residues (PPR Panel) provides independent scientific advice on the risk assessment of plant protection products and their residues. This includes in particular looking at risks to operators, workers, residents and consumers as well as the environment, including wildlife. One of the main activities of the PPR Panel is to develop new or review existing guidance documents on the risk assessment of pesticides, including the development of risk assessment approaches, methodologies and models. The Panel may provide opinions on the effects of specific active substances used in plant protection products or on any generic issue related to the safe use of pesticides.

GMOs and derived food and feed products are subject to a risk analysis before they can be placed on the EU market. In this process, the role of the GMO Panel is to independently evaluate the risk assessments provided by companies and manufacturers and to give scientific advice to risk managers on any risks that GMOs may pose to human and animal health and the environment. The assessment covers several specific aspects of risk, one of which is the possible risk to “non-target organisms” such as bees. The Panel has developed guidelines for the safety assessment of GM plants and derived food and feed that assist companies and manufacturers to prepare applications for the authorisation of GM plants. In 2010, the GMO Panel updated its guidance with respect to environmental risk assessment of GM plants, and specific guidance has been developed on the evaluation of possible effects of GM plants on non-target organisms.

In addition, each application  for authorisation of a GM plant has to be accompanied by a Post-Market Environmental Monitoring (PMEM) plan demonstrating how the applicant will monitor the GM plant for possible adverse environmental effects after it has been placed lawfully on the EU market. The aim of PMEM is to identify possible unanticipated adverse effects on the environment which could arise directly or indirectly from cultivation of GM plants. In 2006, EFSA’s GMO Panel provided applicants with guidance for developing PMEM plans, which was updated in 2011. Since 2010, the GMO Panel has been responsible for assessing the annual PMEM reports which are submitted to the European Commission for each GM crop authorised for cultivation in the EU (currently maize MON810 and the Amflora potato).

The Panel on Plant Health provides independent scientific advice on the risks posed by organisms which can cause harm to plants, plant products or plant biodiversity in the European Community. Every pest risk assessment includes the assessment of environmental risk, but to clarify and harmonise approaches in this area the Panel has published specific guidance on the environmental risk assessment of plant pests. EFSA’s work in the area of plant health is specifically relevant to bee health as some pests that are a threat to bees can be transported by, and live on, plants. The small hive beetle, for example, can live without bees, surviving on fruit and vegetables. It could therefore be introduced into the EU in consignments of such products.

The Panel on Animal Health and Welfare provides independent scientific advice on all aspects of animal diseases and animal welfare. Its work chiefly concerns food-producing animals.

EFSA publishes an annual report summarising data on the presence of residues of veterinary medicinal products and other substances in live animals and animal products – such as honey – in the European Union. The latest report, for 2010, shows that only 0.33 % of the 418,081 targeted samples were non-compliant, a similar figure to that recorded in 2009 (0.32%).

EU framework

EFSA's activities

In 2009 EFSA launched a project to assess bee surveillance systems in the EU, and to collate and analyse data and publications related to honey bee colony mortality across Europe. The Agence Française de Sécurité Sanitaire des Aliments (AFSSA, forerunner of Anses) set up a consortium of seven European bee disease research institutes to answer the call for data and a literature review. The subsequent report Bee Mortality and Bee Surveillance in Europe made a number of recommendations to improve surveillance as well as identifying consensus across the EU on the multifactorial origins of the decline in bee numbers. It also helped to shape the Commission’s strategy for tackling the decline in bee numbers across Europe, which was clarified in a key communication on honey bee health published in 2010.

In 2012, EFSA staff participated in a working group set up by Anses to review a scientific paper on the combined impact of bee pathogens (Nosema ceranae) and low doses of pesticides on honey bee mortality and to ensure closer scientific collaboration between EFSA and Anses on the risk assessment of bees. The working group concluded that more research was required on the toxicokinetic characteristics of the chemicals with which bees come into contact in the environment and that the new schemes for assessing the potential risk to bees from plant protection products needed to include bee exposure to low and repeated doses of pesticides.

In February 2012 the Pesticides Unit reviewed the risk of thiamethoxam to honeybees, as requested by the European Commission, on the basis of new information submitted. Thiamethoxam is a member of the neonicotinoid group of insecticides, which some studies suggest could be a contributing factor to bee colony losses. The use of neonicotinoids is restricted in Germany, Italy, France and Slovenia.

In June 2012 the Pesticides Unit delivered a statement on two articles published in the journal Science which suggested links between neonicotinoids and bee colony survival. The first article highlighted research showing that honey bees exposed to sub-lethal doses of thiamethoxam suffer from impaired orientation skills, and concluded that commonly encountered concentrations of thiamethoxam can contribute to the collapse of colonies. The second article concluded that imidacloprid, another neonicotinoid, can inhibit the reproductive health of bumble bees. The European Commission asked EFSA to examine whether the doses used in the studies were comparable to the actual doses to which bees are exposed.

EFSA continued its work in this area by carrying out risk assessments of the potential effects on bees of thiamethoxam, imidacloprid and clothianidin. The assessments, published in January 2013, paid particular attention to acute and chronic effects on bee colony survival and development, taking into account the effects on bee larvae as well as bee behaviour.

Following the recommendations of the EFSA/Anses working group (see above), in May 2013 EFSA performed a risk assessment of the insecticide fipronil, paying particular regard to the possible acute, chronic and sub-lethal effects on bees. Later that month more than 100 bee experts attended the Authority’s Scientific Colloquium on holistic approaches to the risk assessment of multiple stressors in bees.

In July 2013 EFSA published a major guidance document on the risk assessment of pesticides in relation to honey bees, bumble bees and solitary bees. The groundwork for this was laid in April 2012 when the PPR Panel published an opinion outlining the scientific basis for the development of the guidance document.

In January 2013 experts from EFSA’s Animal Health and Welfare Panel published a scientific opinion on the risk of introduction and spread in the EU of the small hive beetle (Aethina tumida) and the Tropilaelaps bee mite through the importation from third countries of live bees and bee products, and of products such as fruit and vegetables.

Main work in progress

In line with the strategy of EFSA to consider risk assessments in a wider, more integrated manner so as to provide risk managers with comprehensive advice on which to base their decisions, the Authority established in May 2012 an internal task force drawn from the relevant Units to compile a state-of-the-art review of the work carried out at EFSA, as well as the current activities conducted outside EFSA, in the area of bees.

The task force, coordinated by the EFSA staff, published a report in November 2012 giving an overview of EFSA’s current activities and making recommendations on how this work should be continued.

The PPR Panel is currently revising EFSA's guidance for assessing risks from pesticides related to aquatic and terrestrial ecotoxicology. One of the areas addressed by the guidance will be the effects on bees of the interaction between pesticides and other stressors.

 

Last updated: 13 March 2014