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Brussels, 6 December 2010
Questions and Answers – Honeybee health in the EU
Why is the health of bees important to me?
It is important for several reasons. The most well known one is probably the production of honey. Healthy bees are likely to produce more and probably better-quality honey. Bees also contribute to the production of other goods –mainly propolis, royal jelly and wax– that are probably not as well known as honey, but are important bee products used, for example, in cosmetics and candles.
Crucially, healthy bees are invaluable to the environment because they pollinate plants, such as fruit trees, when collecting pollen. This helps growing more crops, vegetables and fruit, thus making food cheaper. Fewer bees, or unhealthy bees, means less of the above.
Finally, beekeeping is a popular countryside activity in many regions of the Union. Hundreds of thousands of small farmers keep bees as part of their farming life, while a growing number Europeans are bee-keepers by hobby.
Why are bees disappearing?
Even scientists are puzzled about this. Many point the finger at certain viruses, mites, bugs or other causes, but so far they do not fully agree on what exactly is causing high bee mortality rates. It appears that many scientists could be right and bees are perishing because of a combination of various reasons. Unfortunately, the leading cause remains unknown at this stage. More research needs to be carried, and the Communication adopted today proposes exactly that.
How big is the problem of losses of bee colonies in the EU and worldwide?
It varies both in the EU and elsewhere. For many world regions, no report on the extent of the problem is available, but in other places up to half of bee colonies have disappeared. For example, in the USA, in 2006-2007, the losses were so high (some beekeepers lost all their colonies) and unexplainable that scientists called the phenomenon "colony collapse disorder".
Part of the whole bee-health issue is that the exact magnitude of these losses is unclear. This is why the Communication stresses the need for a first design of a good program to monitor the bees in the EU. The Member States, veterinarians and beekeepers will note changes in their numbers and compiled data will be analyzed.
Are only bees disappearing?
No. The high mortality rate of bees could be part of a more general decline of some other insects called " pollinators", such as butterflies, wild bumblebees, hoverflies etc. i.e. insects that also visit flowers. These pollinators are probably disappearing because their habitats have shrunk or have been affected by adverse effects on the environment over the years.
How is bee health different from that of farmed animals?
Bee health is different in many aspects. Firstly, it depends not only on one animal. Bees live in colonies. The health of the colony depends on the health of its individual bees and the other way around. . If something disturbs the complex interactions in the colony, bees may work and produce less, diseases can appear and the whole colony can even die off.
Secondly, bees live and feed in their natural environment even if kept in beehives. A colony needs an area of a certain size which has enough food. Its bees make millions of daily collections of nectar, water, pollen, powder, propolis, etc. and also have many contacts with other bees and insects that do not belong to the colony. The health of the bees and colonies can easily suffer if there are negative developments in their surroundings (diseases, less food, worse weather, harmful materials, etc.).
Thirdly, once bees are sick, it is sometimes difficult to treat and heal them. It is difficult, if not impossible, to confine them during a treatment process. Sometimes the right medicines simply do not exist.
What can we do to protect the bees?
Beekeepers are at the forefront of this battle. Their expertise and dedication can not be matched. The training of beekeepers is very important, as well as sharing of data and good practices, even across borders. Building Europe-wide organisations to implement common strategies may be one of the best forms of protection we can offer the bees.
What is the Commission doing to protect the bees?
The Commission is already using various tools. Several scientific studies were recently launched to better determine the causes and effects of colony collapses. A special European bee lab will soon be established and will start a pilot program to survey the bees. Furthermore, together with the Member States, the Commission has increased the available money to fund the replacement of lost colonies.
The Commission is also looking into ways to stimulate the development of new bee medicines or to make existing ones available and affordable. The utmost is being done to ensure that new pesticides do not harm bees. Veterinarians are being trained to know more about bee health and to collect, analyse and distribute a lot of information on bee health.
How much does the EU spend on these?
Just some of the relevant amounts: the EU contribution to the financing of the apiculture programmes of the Member States for 2011-2013 has increased by almost 25% compared to the previous period (2008-2010), from 26 million euros to 32 million euros per year (for more details please see table below; source DG AGRI). The EU budget dedicated to research on honeybees and other pollinators amounts to approximately 10 million euros. The planned EU surveillance program will possibly cost several millions of euros.
Should we have more rules to protect the bees?
Only if necessary. Good rules are already in place to protect bees from certain diseases. A clearer picture is still needed, both in terms of the actual causes of bee deaths and in terms of the exact magnitude of the problem, before potential new legislative actions. Rules are often very effective, but they can also be burdensome and therefore should be put in place only as a last resort.
What happens in areas where the bees have disappeared?
The loss of bee colonies means less honey and fewer bee products. The lost colonies can often be replaced, but this involves a lot of work and costs hefty sums of money.
The disappearance of bees could mean fewer types, as well as a lower yield, of crops, fruits or flowers. But little data supports this. Pollination is also carried out by other insects, such as bumblebees, hoverflies or butterflies and even certain birds and bats. Those may replace in part the pollination work carried out by the bees. To clarify this, another scientific study was recently started on how the numbers of wild pollinators and bees change and what the consequences of these changes are.