Bee health discussed in a workshop in the European Parliament

Following the European Commission proposal for a two year ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, the European Parliament held a workshop on 26th February 2013 to assess current information on the status of bee health in the EU. The event attracted a large audience and included presentations from researchers, beekeepers, farming groups, EU institutions, the EU reference laboratory, and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Bees play an essential role in pollinating wild plants and many of Europe’s economically important field and orchard crops, including rapeseed, sunflower and apple, while also producing honey and providing key ingredients for other apiculture products. A large body of evidence has been accumulated on the causes of bee mortality in recent years, both in the EU and worldwide. The evidence points to multiple interacting factors, including habitat loss, the quality of the bee diet, disease, bee-keeper practices, farming practices and climate, as well as the use of pesticides. A recent assessment of risks from neonicotinoid pesticides by the EFSA prompted the European Commission to propose a two year ban of these substances.

At the workshop several researchers commented on the latest findings and the remaining uncertainties on factors affecting bee health. The leader of the OPERA-led project ‘Bee Health in Europe: Facts and Figures 2013’ stated that agriculture is one of the most significant anthropogenic factors affecting bee health, alongside other factors. Their report proposes a range of policy approaches to improve bee health. These include improved agricultural land management to increase resilience to bee disease by ensuring that higher quality food is available for the bees (for example by cropping with nectar and pollen rich flower mixes and flowering crops, and by maintaining semi‐natural areas, grasslands, field borders and in-field strips). Together with a representative of the UK Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA), the researchers were cautious about the impact of pesticides alone. They underlined the need to assess the quality of bee food and the status of disease in bee hives in combination with the effect of pesticides. FERA stated that more research is needed on: the net effects of bees often being exposed to several pesticides over a period of time; the realistic exposure levels and combinations of pesticides at the individual colony level; and on the effects of long term, low level exposure of bees to multiple pesticides. The EFSA provided an update on their activities relating to bee health, which includes a task force on bees. The first review of EFSA work on bees and ecosystem services was published on 9th November 2012, and will be followed by a review of non-EFSA data, research needs and cross-cutting risks, due to be published in September 2013. While the scientific evidence presented in the workshop was contested by several attendees, the Commission’s steps in closing knowledge gaps were commended. A large number of European beekeepers in the audience participated in a lively debate, with issues such as uncertainty in science, the impact of pesticides, and the proposed Pillar 1 ‘greening’ measures taking priority.

EU policy-makers intervened in the second session of the workshop. Csaba Tabajdi, MEP and rapporteur on Honeybee Health and the Challenges for the Beekeeping Sector called for the development of consistent standards, rules and regulations for the bee-keeping sector. DG SANCO summarised recently adopted or revised EU policies relating to bee health, including the Communication on bee health released in 2010; the Directive on the Sustainable Use of Pesticides in force since 2009 and its implementing rules which cover risk mitigation for specific substances (implemented since 2010), a new risk assessment for bees and improved data requirements. Work is progressing on a new guidance document, and the proposed regulatory measures on neonicotinoid pesticides are under discussion. The speaker concluded that the EU framework is in place and needs only fine-tuning, that beekeepers have a critical role in implementing good practice, and that no easy or quick risk management solutions are at hand. Francois Wakenhut from DG Environment stressed the importance of addressing bee health in the context of the overall state of pollination services provided in healthy ecosystems, and announced that an EU Red List of pollinator species will be completed in 2014. He underlined the urgency of delivering on the EU Biodiversity Strategy targets for preserving natural habitats for honeybees and other wild pollinators, and of increasing the contribution of agriculture and forestry to maintaining and enhancing biodiversity by 2020.

The vote in the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health on the proposed two-year ban on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, is planned for for Friday 15 March. This vote will establish the extent to which Member States agree on the proposed restrictions, before the Commission takes a final decision to adopt the ban. Any such legislative change will require the support of a qualified majority of Member States. At present the opposition of the UK, Germany and Spain appears to outweigh the support of France, the Netherlands and Poland. There may be changes in the positions of Member States before the vote. Although the UK is not expected to support the measure, a recent poll revealed that almost three quarters of the public are in favour of the ban. Member States that oppose the legal change underline the data gaps and what they see as a lack of proportionality in the proposed measures.

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28 Feb 2013