EFSA Scientific Colloquium N°18: Towards holistic approaches to the risk assessment of multiple stressors in bees

15 May 2013

Experts debate bee health at EFSA Colloquium

More than 100 bee experts gathered in Parma, Italy, this week to debate the latest scientific developments on the risk assessment of multiple stressors in bees. EFSA’s 18th Scientific Colloquium was convened in response to the growing consensus among scientists about the multifactorial origins of bee colony losses and mounting evidence that stressors in bees ­– such as parasites, diseases, malnutrition and the effects of products such as pesticides – may act in combination as well as independently.

Agnès Rortais, an EFSA scientist who leads the Authority’s internal task force on bees, said: “Bees play a vital role in our ecosystems and the food chain and it is essential that we protect them. This colloquium was a unique opportunity to bring together experts and specialists from all over the world and pool their knowledge and experience in the pursuit of this important task. The ideas and insights that were shared over these two days will be of immense benefit to the work of the EFSA task force.”

Professor Tony Hardy, Chair of EFSA’s Scientific Committee, opened the meeting by welcoming delegates from all over Europe and as far afield as the United States and Canada – including representatives of national environmental bodies; industrial and producer groups such as beekeeper associations; civil organisations; and the European Commission. Prof. Hardy emphasised that the object of the colloquium was to have a frank and open discussion rather than reach a consensus on what is a difficult and sometimes controversial issue.

Invited experts then introduced the four themes of the meeting – entitled “Towards a holistic approach to the risk assessment of multiple stressors in bees” – which were later developed in smaller discussion groups. Koos Biesmeijer, from the Naturalis Biodiversity Centre in the Netherlands, set the scene for the discussion on “Protection of Bees and Pollination Services: Tools and Challenges” by outlining the results of a study comparing the decline of bee species in Europe over four 20-year periods.

Pascal Hendrikx, from the French food safety agency ANSES, then described the progress that has been made in setting up a standardised, Europe-wide bee surveillance programme through the EU Reference Laboratory for Honeybee Health. He told the audience that a standard protocol has already been established in 17 Member States, with common sampling methods, visit questionnaires and training of bee inspectors.

Fabio Sgolastra, from the University of Bologna, Italy, gave a taste of the discussion to come on “Testing and Assessing Stressors in Bees: From Laboratory to Field Conditions” by pinpointing difficult issues such as how to address the chronic effects of sub-lethal doses of pesticides under field conditions.

Jeff Pettis, from the US Department of Agriculture, summed up the intricacies of the fourth theme, “Risk Assessment of Multiple Stressors in Bees: From Mechanistic to Holistic Approaches” by suggesting that the topic “is not rocket science. It’s more complex than that.” He raised a number of issues that were taken up in the discussion group, such as: the use of models as a tool in risk assessment; and the validity of extrapolating individual results to the “superorganism”.

The four themes were discussed in detail at the afternoon sessions, and the overall messages were then presented at a plenary session the next morning.

EFSA’s scientific colloquia bring together international experts from different sectors for an open scientific debate on key issues; they are organised so as to provide ample opportunity for the exchange of views. This latest meeting will provide valuable material for EFSA’s internal task force on bees, which is currently identifying cross-cutting issues, data and knowledge gaps, research needs and recommendations based on the most recent developments in the area of risk assessment and monitoring of bees. The task force is due to report in September 2013.