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European bees at healthy levels

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Overwintering losses of colonies has also sunk to record low for 2013/2014 winter.

| August 12, 2014

European bees are much healthier than many recent publications appear to suggest. New field data from nearly 400,000 bee colonies from 21 countries in Europe and the Mediterranean show that overwintering losses of honey bee colonies – a leading indicator of general bee health – are at their lowest level in years.

“It is great to see that our bees came out of the 2013/2014 winter in the best shape seen over the past several years,” said Dr. Christian Maus, global pollinator safety manager at Bayer CropScience. “These results are also very telling since the data relate to a season during which neonicotinoid-based crop protection products were in common use throughout Europe. This offers further evidence that these important components in a farmer’s toolbox do not impact bee health under real-life field conditions,” Maus adds.European bees are at their best health level in years as overwintering losses of colonies sink to record lo

The non-profit honey bee research association COLOSS (prevention of honey bee COlony LOSSes), which comprises more than 360 scientific professionals from 60 countries, has published new data showing that the overall mortality rate of bees in the 2013/2014 winter was nine percent – losses below 10 percent are considered to be normal. This compares with losses between 30 and 34 percent in the UK and Belgium during the 2012/2013 winter season.

Mite infestations impact overwintering

In winter, honey bees are generally not active outside the hive; they are very busy inside taking steps to ensure the colony's survival. They continue to access stored food – honey and pollen – and generate heat within the hive to protect the queen. If adequate provisions have not been made during the summer and fall, e.g. by the bee keeper, then a colony is likely to collapse by the following spring because of starvation. Another major factor affecting honey bee colonies in the winter is mite infestation – the greatest threat is from the Varroa mite.

The coordinator of the COLOSS Working Group, Dr Romée van der Zee from the Dutch Centre for Bee Research, explains, “The contributions of many factors which are correlated to colony losses seem to be very dependent on weather conditions. Colonies built their brood nests late because of the relatively cold spring in 2013. This may have decreased the number of reproductive cycles of the parasitic Varroa mite, producing fewer mites. Good weather in the summer then provided excellent foraging opportunities.”

Neonicotinoids do not cause harm to bee health in farming practice

Restrictions on neonicotinoids came into force in Europe in December 2013 as a result of the European Commission´s concerns that this group of crop protection products, which is used to control pests that damage field crops such as corn and oilseed rape, might pose a risk to bees. Many scientific studies, field monitoring data and risk assessments, however, have shown neonicotinoids do not cause harm to bees under real-life field condititions when they are used responsibly and properly, according to label instructions.

“It seems that everyone is looking for just one culprit of reduced bee health and colony losses, but you can't point the finger of blame at a single factor. Bees are facing multiple challenges around pests and pathogens, loss of habitat, and poor farming and beekeeping practices. Pollination matters to agriculture, hence safeguarding the health of bees is a shared responsibility of all the partners involved: farmers, beekeepers and industry,” said Annette Schürmann, head of the Bayer Bee Care Center.

This is underscored by a landmark study published in May 2014 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. A group of international scientists led by Professor Charles Godfray and Professor Angela McLean, University of Oxford, analyzed the natural science evidence base relevant to neonicotinoid insecticides and insect pollinators. They concluded that "there is poor geographical correlation between neonicotinoid use and honeybee decline".

Australia and New Zealand: bee industry in good shape

This is supported by findings outside Europe. A parliamentary report on bee health published by the Primary Production Committee in New Zealand in July 2014 confirms, “There is currently no evidence of the disorder [Colony Collapse] in New Zealand, although these pesticides [neonicotinoids] are commonly used here as a seed dressing and as foliar sprays. We heard that when anecdotal evidence of losses is investigated, the causes seem to be mainly Varroa or starvation rather than pesticides.” The report notes that honey production and exports are rising.

The regulatory authorities in Australia also investigated the potential effect of neonicotinoid seed treatments on bee health. Their report “Neonicotinoids and the health of honey bees in Australia,” published in March 2014, confirms that the introduction of the neonicotinoids in Australia has brought a number of benefits such as healthy crops and more productivity, noting also that they are considerably more favorable for humans (and other mammals) than the older products they have replaced.

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