A new survey of bee populations across Europe reveals the different ways honeybee numbers were impacted by the 2012-2013 winter. What does the study tell us and why are its findings important?
This month European officials released a new survey called “A Pan-European Epidemiological Study on Honeybee Colony Loses 2012-2013.” The European survey included data about 31,800 colonies from across 17 European member states. This research, the first of its kind, compiled data from a variety of smaller studies that was used to create a broad database and therein generate a more representative analysis of the state of honeybee die offs in Europe.
It’s nice to say that, for once, there are some encouraging signs. The survey reports that there have been “acceptable” mortality rates (under 10 percent) for almost half of honeybee colonies across the European nations that were surveyed (Greece, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Slovakia and Spain). Those figures are revisions of earlier speculative figures that had put the rate of mortality quite a bit higher. They are also in stark contrast to preliminary U.S. figures, which appear to show that during the 2012-2013 winter, around 31 percent of honeybee colonies were lost.
The research found that bee diseases in Europe were perhaps less prevalent than the smaller studies might have suggested, and that overall colony collapse disorder doesn’t, for honeybees at least, appear to be an imminent threat. Among the nations whose honeybees seem to be doing particularly well were Italy and Greece. Unfortunately, why this might be isn’t yet known.
There were a few nations that were just over the acceptable limit, and they include Germany, France, Latvia, Poland and Portugal, where mortality rates were between 10 and 15 percent. Those figures aren’t overly concerning and might be accounted for by a particularly bad season and perhaps not yet indicative of a worrying downward trend — though future data might show that to be the case.
However, the survey did find that there are several places in Europe where honeybee mortality rates are considerably higher than the European average. In fact, one third of the EU’s bee colonies exceeded the 10 percent die off rate, and there may be more because this research didn’t take survey data from around 20 percent of the EU’s bee colonies.
The research found that northern countries in particular are seeing high honeybee mortality. Belgium had the highest mortality rate at 33.6 percent, while the UK wasn’t far behind at 28.8 percent. Other nations above the so-called “unacceptable threshold” included Denmark, Estonia, Finland and Sweden.
That said, the commission believes this research should be encouraging. The Guardian quotes the commission behind the report as saying, “These data show that, while higher bee colony mortalities do exist in some parts of the EU, bees are neither disappearing, nor is colony collapse disorder taking place.”
However, the report has one significant (though understandable) limitation that might take the shine off this news: the research only talks about honeybees and not other wild pollinators like bumblebees. We know bumblebees are facing increasingly reduced numbers to the point where extinction threatens almost a quarter of bumblebee species, so while it’s good news for honeybees, we shouldn’t get carried away.
The report has received some quite scathing criticism, however, for not at any point really mentioning the fact that there is growing evidence that among the many factors that are possibly contributing to pollinator deaths, a leading one is the use of pesticides and insecticides, particularly those dubbed neonicotinoids.
While several nations have taken steps to curb the use of neonicotinoids, which a growing and now significant body of evidence has shown seriously impact bee population numbers, there are nations within the EU that maintain a ban is not necessary. Among them is the British government which has refused to support a European ban on bee-harming pesticides because it does not believe the science is there — despite the fact that science clearly is leaning that way.
This leads us to a pressing question: why is the UK government ignoring the data? The answer may be the same as the reason why, for instance, the government continues to try to undermine the fox hunting ban, why it is ignoring the data on the UK badger cull that shows it is ineffective and potentially counterproductive, and why it is fighting renewable energy in the form of expanding wind farm programs: the powers of various lobby groups including the Fossil Fuel industry and pressure from groups like the National Farmer’s Union, which continue to fight a pesticides ban because it would cost them money and/or business.
To be sure though, it will cost us even more should our pollinators die. Will the UK government, and wider European bodies, finally get the message then?
Photo credit: Thinkstock.