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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. 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).

Latest

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.

Milestones

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’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 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.

EU framework

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).

Pesticides

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.

Plant health

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.

MUST-B project

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.

FAQ: MUST-B project

1. Why is EFSA working on this project?

A request to develop an integrated, holistic approach to the risk assessment of multiple stressors in managed honey bees was sent to EFSA in 2018 by the European Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety. The request built on a previous European Parliament initiative which led in 2017 to the creation of the EU Bee Partnership – a stakeholder-led project facilitated by EFSA – which aims to establish an EU-wide platform for the collection and sharing of harmonised data on bee health and beekeeping in Europe. The current scientific opinion is the culmination of five years’ work on multiple stressors and bees at EFSA (the MUST-B project).

2. What is new about the MUST-B approach?

MUST-B is an ambitious attempt to consider multiple stressors – whether they be chemical, biological or related to environmental factors such as climate change and agricultural practices – together in a single risk assessment framework. It is a systems-based framework composed of two core components – a monitoring system and a modelling system – with honey bees used to showcase the approach.

3. How would it work?

The approach envisages interoperable data flowing from the monitoring system to the simulation model of a honey bee colony. The model, known as ApisRAM, has been developed specifically for MUST-B. Importantly, it will be able to simulate exposure to multiple chemicals and to reflect more accurately both field and in-hive exposure of honey bees to multiple chemicals over time. ApisRAM would be calibrated and continuously updated with incoming monitoring data and results from the latest research, presently from the B-GOOD and PoshBee projects.

4. And where would the data come from?

Data would be collected from a network of “sentinel hives” equipped with digital sensors and from representative climate zones and landscapes in the EU and connected to a platform for data storage and analysis. The EU Bee Partnership (see question 1) and the research development supporting MUST-B (B-GOOD and PoshBee) play a crucial role in developing this aspect of the project.

5. What about other bees?

The approach has been developed for honey bees, but could be applied to bumble bees, solitary bees and other insect pollinators and non-target arthropods to strengthen their protection and the ecosystem services that they provide to the wider environment.

6. So is it ready to go now?

No. This scientific opinion presents ideas and concepts for future development. It is not prescriptive, nor is it associated with or related to specific EU legislation. The finalised opinion will present a framework and supporting rationale but many of the tools and proposed methods will require further elaboration, which will in part be reliant on new research and scientific development. However, it is expected that in the near future the systems-based approach and innovative models and tools can make a significant contribution to the development of environmental risk assessment of multiple chemicals and other stressors.

7. How does the MUST-B opinion differ from the guidance document on pesticides and bees that EFSA is currently revising?

The review of the bee guidance is being developed in line with existing legislation for the approval of plant protection products and as such is part of the periodic evaluation process for pesticides. This process follows the “single crop, single pesticide” assessment, and does not address combined effects from exposure to multiple chemicals and/or other stressors. MUST-B is not part of any regulatory process, and therefore has the scope to suggest new perspectives for the future development of environmental risk assessment. It could, however, make a significant contribution to the revision and update of regulatory guidance documents at some point in the future.