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Belgium and France are EU’s bee mortality hotspots

Staff writer |
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has published figures on the loss of bees in the EU. Belgium tops the list for winter mortality, and France for the beekeeping season.

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Funded by the European Commission and carried out by the EU Reference Laboratory for bee health in France, the EPILOBEE study examined the mortality rates in 5,798 honey bee colonies across 17 EU countries between autumn 2012 and summer 2014.

The first results, published in April 2014, revealed a steep increase in bee mortality from South to North. Two years later, this trend was confirmed, but with a generally lower winter mortality rate: over the period 2013-2014, only five countries exceeded the ‘acceptable’ rate of 10%, compared to 13 countries for 2012-2013.

Both years, Belgium topped the winter mortality statistics, with 31.73% the first year, and 13.85% the second year. The highest spring-summer mortality rate occurred in France, with 9.63% and 8.06%. While there is no defined ‘acceptable’ level for seasonal mortality, these figures are seen as particularly high.

So what is behind this severe disparity between European countries? EPILOBEE does not claim to have the answer, as it should be used primarily as a snap-shot of the situation across Europe, “not an analysis of causality,” said Magali Ribière-Chabert, the head of bee pathology at the French food safety agency (ANSES) laboratory that carried out the study.

But the risk factors investigated indicate that bee-keeping practices have an important role to play.

Mortality rates are lower “with professional bee-keepers with more than five years’ experience, those that are members of an association or have had particular training, and those that monitor their hives with a logbook”, the researcher said. Other factors associated with higher mortality rates are the presence of the varroa destructor mite, an external parasite, and the bacterial disease American foulbrood.

In Belgium, where Ribière-Chabert observed “the largest number of small-scale apiarists, many with only one bee colony”, factors related to bee-keepers appear to be significant contributors to the high mortality rate. But the French mortality rate of close to 10% remains “one of the big question marks” of the EPILOBEE study.

The Commission had originally planned to analyse the effects of pesticides on bee colonies.

But to the great disappointment of bee-keeping associations like the French National Union of Beekeeping (UNAF), the idea was deemed unfeasible and was side-lined. UNAF spokesperson Henri Clément said this was evidence of “an intent not to find” evidence of harmful effects.

“This was not possible,” said Ribière-Chabert, who insisted that existing methods for analysing the bee matrix (bees’ bodies, larvae, honey comb, honey) were not up to the task.

She explained that problems included knowing which analytical method to use, which molecules to study and when to take samples.

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