Monday

17th Jun 2019

Top scientist warns against 'hype' as EU sets out bee rescue plan

  • Declines in honey bee populations have been reported in a number of EU member states, but data is patchy (Photo: Brad Smith)

The European Commission has published a new action plan intended to shed light on reports of declining honey-bee populations across Europe, key pollinators for many of the bloc's important crop species.

At the same time, one the Europe's top scientists in the field has warned against mass hysteria, pointing out that most species have experienced epidemics at one stage or another over previous centuries, ultimately with little long-term effect.

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"The fact that honey-bee colonies die in large numbers is nothing strange," the UK's only professor in the field of apiculture, the University of Sussex's Francis Ratnieks, told this website.

Biodiversity loss and foreign diseases do present a major challenge for Europe's honey-bees, said professor Ratnieks, but he added there is "an awful lot of hype about bees" at the moment, stressing that humans ultimately recovered from events as traumatic as the Black Death, the 14th Century pandemic estimated to have wiped out 30-60 percent of Europe's population at the time.

The issue of honey-bee decline came to the fore in 2006 amid reports in the US of 'colony collapse disorder' (CCD), a phenomenon in which worker bees abruptly disappear from a beehive. Since then, there have been reports in a number of EU member states of honey-bee populations dying off, although data appears to be patchy.

The commission's non-legislative report on Monday (6 December) in part aims to tackle this data shortage by setting up an EU reference laboratory for bee health in Sophia Antipolis, a technology hub in France, as well as a pilot surveillance programme to estimate the extent of bee mortalities.

The paper also says the commission intends to increase EU funding for national apiculture programmes by almost 25 percent, up to €36 million per year over the period of 2011 to 2013, as well as tackle the problem of biodiversity loss and improve co-operation with international organisations such as the World Organisation for Animal Health.

"The protection of honey-bee health is of high importance in the EU," the bloc's health and consumer policy commissioner, John Dalli, said in a statement. "The communication adopted today will enhance the discussion on bee health with all interested parties and could pave the way for more action from the EU."

Questioned by journalists, a different EU official said that while pesticides are tested before they can be approved in the EU, there were no sufficient grounds to ban neonicotinoids insecticides at present, despite unilateral bans in a number of EU member states, including France.

Neonicotinoids act on the central nervous system of insects and are among the most widely used insecticides. They have attracted controversy recently, with a number of EU governments putting restrictions in place due to a possible connection to mass honey-bee deaths.

Professor Ratnieks agreed that, while pesticides are certainly not helping bee populations, other factors appeared to be a greater threat to bee health. "The problem didn't significantly improve in France after the ban," he said.

Instead he pinpointed habitat loss as the key threat to European bee populations, underlying that 75 percent of the UK's land surface is currently used for agriculture. "Since WWII farming has been intensified [with resulting loss of habitat] and the EU has supported this," he said.

Many environmentalists also blame the bloc's common agricultural policy (CAP), born in a post-war era of food shortages, for declines in the number of European species over recent decades. A CAP reform paper put forward by the commission last month includes new environmental incentives to look after wildlife.

"Will the bee-loud glade be around in the future? Well, not if they don't have any flowers to feed on," professor Ratnieks said wistfully, referring to the famous 'Lake Isle of Innisfree' poem by Irish poet William Butler Yeats.

He also identified two diseases that have recently travelled from Asia to Europe - the Varroa mite and the Nosema ceranae parasite - as important threats to European honey bees.

Other scientists have stressed the issue of climate change in causing the bees' decline.

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