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. 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.
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.
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), and the small hive beetle Aethina tumida and environmental changes (e.g. habitat fragmentation and loss).
In July 2021, the EU Bee Partnership (EUBP) unveiled a new online data platform that will play a crucial role in efforts to protect bee and pollinator health. The prototype platform is a ground-breaking tool that will bring together and visualise harmonised data related to bees and other pollinators.
May 2021 A new scientific opinion, requested by the European Parliament’s Committee for the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI), sets out an integrated, holistic framework for assessing the combined effects of multiple stressors on honey bees (MUST-B).
January-March 2021 An eight-week public consultation is held to gather comments on EFSA’s draft scientific opinion on the assessment of multiple stressors in bees (MUST-B). A timeline for development of the ApisRAM modelling system is also published.
June 2019 EFSA receives the Excellence through Collaboration award from the EU Ombudsman for its work to raise awareness on bee health.
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 on the environmental safety of pesticides and GMOs that manufacturers would like to place on the EU market. EFSA’s Pesticides Peer Review 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 Plant Health & Pesticides Residues Unit 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.
EFSA’s Integrated Data Unit compiles the annual European Union Report on Pesticide Residues in Food, which gives an overview of the control activities performed in the 28 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 2017, shows that 1.8% 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.
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.
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 2017, shows that 0.35% of the 360,293 targeted samples were non-compliant.
In 2010 the European Commission issued a Communication on Honeybee Health, which clarified the key issues related to bee health and the key actions that the Commission is taking to address them.
Animal health and welfare
Bees are covered by the Animal Health Strategy for the European Union, and legislation on animal health certification and requirements for the movement of bees between Member States (Directive 92/65/EEC). These requirements are intended to prevent and control a number of bee diseases and pests such as the small hive beetle (Aethina tumida) and the Tropilaelaps mite, which can spread via the movement of bees and trade in hive products, plants and fruit. There are also animal health requirements for imports from third countries of live bees and bumble bees to avoid introduction into the EU of exotic bee diseases (Regulation 206/2010).
Pesticide residues may be taken up by bees during the collection of nectar and/or pollen and water. A Regulation was adopted in 2009 concerning the placing of plant protection products on the market, replacing Council Directive 91/414/EEC. The new Regulation – 1107/2009 – maintains the provision that pesticides can be approved at EU level only if their use has no unacceptable effect on bee health or leads to negligible exposure of honey bees. This regime is underpinned by MRLs, which are set to protect consumers and to make trade possible in products containing residues. MRLs for pesticide residues are set in the framework of Regulation 396/2005.
Genetically modified organisms
Before a GMO can be used or cultivated, it must be authorised under Directive 2001/18/EC or Regulation 1829/2003 following a thorough scientific evaluation by EFSA that includes the potential adverse effects on bees.
The aim of the EU plant health regime, established by Council Directive 2000/29/EC, is to prevent the introduction of organisms harmful to plants or plant products or their spread within the EU. Every pest risk assessment includes the assessment of environmental risks.
Residues of veterinary medicinal products in foodstuffs of animal origin
Regulation 37/2010 establishes maximum limits for residues of veterinary medicinal products in animals and animal products, including honey. Council Directive 96/23/EC lays down measures to monitor certain substances and residues thereof, mainly veterinary medicinal products, in live animals and animal products. Additionally, Commission Decision 97/747/EC lays down levels and frequencies of sampling for certain animal products.
In early 2015 EFSA launched a major project to develop a holistic approach to the risk assessment of multiple stressors in honeybees (MUST-B).
The MUST-B project draws on EFSA’s expertise in areas such as animal and plant health, data collection and analysis, modelling, pesticides and environmental risk, but will also involve a range of experts and stakeholders from beyond EFSA. It comprises a number of interlinked activities that are being carried out either in-house or in collaboration with external experts, researchers and bodies such as EU Member States, the European Commission, EU sister agencies, and the European Reference Laboratory for Bee Health.
The project is being overseen by a working group made up of experts from a variety of scientific backgrounds. In the summer of 2021 the working group will deliver a scientific opinion on “A holistic approach for the risk assessment of multiple stressors in honey bees” that considers not only cumulative and synergistic effects of pesticides but also issues related to the genetic variety of bees; pathogens; bee management practices; and colony environment. The opinion – requested by the European Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety – will also support the EU Bee Partnership initiative by providing guidance on collecting and sharing harmonised data.