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Searching for a Plan Bee: the importance of bees to a safe food supply

31 Jul 2019
4 min reading time

Bee populations in Europe are tumbling — and it could prove devastating for the safety of the food system. The decline in bee colony numbers began nearly half a century ago. Between 1970 and 2007, Europe lost 5.5 million managed honeybee hives, over a quarter of its total, with the decline becoming more intense over the past few decades. Some EU countries have seen bee populations drop by more than half, according to the European Parliament.

Such a dramatic fall is concerning because pollinators such as bees are key to maintaining a stable and safe food supply. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) reports that, out of the 100 crop species that account for 90 percent of food worldwide, 71 are pollinated by bees. Crops that depend on pollinators make up 40 percent of the nutrients that are necessary for the human diet, including a high proportion of vitamin C (98 percent), vitamin A (71 percent), and calcium (58 percent). According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), well-managed pollination can also lead to a 24 percent increase in crop yields on diverse farms, and crucially, the quality of those crops then goes up. “The plant will put more of its resources into the plant that is more pollinated,” says Dr Barbara Gemmill-Herren, an agroecologist who led pollinator research for the FAO. Strawberries that have been properly pollinated by bees, for example, taste better and are less susceptible to disease and decay.

With fewer pollinators, our food system would consist of fewer, lower-quality, less nutritious, and more vulnerable foods. To avoid this, EU agencies have been active in working to protect pollinators like bees in recent years, with a focus on the safety of the food system. However, amid the threats posed to the environment by climate change, pollinators are facing additional challenges, and more regulatory and sustainability work remains to be done.

Pesticides’ Impact on Bee Health

The reasons for the decline in bee populations are numerous, often misunderstood and frequently grouped under the term “colony collapse disorder” (CCD). Explanations for what could cause CCD include habitat loss, diseases, poor beekeeping practices, and the use of agricultural chemicals. One particular type of chemical that has gained increasing attention from both food safety agencies like EFSA and European regulators is pesticides called neonicotinoids, which have been shown to be particularly threatening to bees, as well as to humans and to the safety of the food system at large.

Neonicotinoids, which were first approved in the E.U. in 2005, are ‘systemic’ chemicals, which means that rather than being applied to sprouted plants via a mechanism such as a sprayer, they are coated onto seeds and taken up into the tissue of the plant as it germinates. When an insect feeds on the plant, the pesticide attacks the insect’s central nervous system, leading to paralysis and death. EFSA concludes that bee species face higher risks from neonicotinoids than non-pollinators do because the pesticide can remain present in nectar, pollen, water, soil, and drifting dust. And although neonicotinoids are intended to be non-toxic to vertebrates, studies have linked neonicotinoid exposure in children with higher levels of anencephaly, congenital heart disorders, and impaired brain development.

In response, the European Commission issued a moratorium on many outdoor uses of three neonicotinoid pesticides — clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam — in 2013. In 2018, following a three year EFSA safety review of nearly 600 scientific studies, the Commission approved a complete ban on all outdoor uses of these three neonicotinoids to protect bees and other pollinators.

Work among EU countries and agencies to protect bees is ongoing. In 2015, EFSA began the MUST-B working group, which aims to develop models for assessing the various risks to bees and eventually issue policy recommendations based on its findings. In 2017, EFSA helped create an EU Bee Partnership, which came to an agreement in 2018 that brings together government agencies, industry groups, and NGOs to share data and fill research gaps. And in June 2019, EFSA’s efforts to protect bees were rewarded with the Excellence through Collaboration prize from the EU Ombudsman.

Bees in a Climate in Crisis

Despite the progress being made to protect bees in the policy arena, pollinators — and, in turn, the safety of our food system — still face other threats, such as a rapidly changing climate. Unseasonably temperate winters, late frosts, and record-shattering summer heat all affect bees’ ability to pollinate plants, make honey and feed themselves, and, ultimately, to survive.

“[Climate change is] the biggest concern for beekeepers. Earlier this year we had late frosts and winds from the north that dried out flowers, preventing them from producing any nectar,” says Henri Clément, secretary-general for the National Union of French Beekeepers (UNAF). And when the weather does warm up, it’s more intense. Beekeepers warned that the heat wave that caused temperatures in France to soar above 45º Celsius at the end of June 2019 was another strain on already-weakened bee colonies. “In the hives, there is nothing to eat. Beekeepers are having to feed [bees] with syrup because they risk dying from hunger,” the French farming union MODEF said in a statement in June.

Not the ‘bee’-all and end-all

There are many ways you can ensure the long-term safety of the food you eat by directly supporting bees and other pollinators in your area against the threats of chemicals and climate change. The World Bee Day website recommends taking actions such as planting nectar-bearing flowers or a pollinator farm on your balcony or garden, choosing local beekeepers from whom to buy honey and other pollinator-produced products, and supporting efforts to preserve meadowlands. And wherever you live, you can encourage your elected officials to support legislative products to support bee populations, reduce industrial pesticide use, reduce the effects of climate change, and keep our food system safe.

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