Bee colony mortality and weakening have been observed in numerous countries for several years now. ANSES has mobilised significant resources to address the subject of bee health and has made it one of its priorities, given the importance of the role of these insect pollinators in producing honey, maintaining biodiversity and as an indicator of the health of the environment.
The appointment in 2011 of ANSES's Sophia-Antipolis Laboratory as the European Union Reference Laboratory (EURL) for bee health was a crucial step in recognising the long-term effort put into the Agency’s research and reference activities in this area. In this context, the laboratory was mandated to coordinate EPILOBEE, a programme for the active surveillance of bee colony mortality in Europe co-funded by the European Commission and the Member States. Each of the 17 Member States taking part in the project developed a surveillance protocol based on guidelines produced by the ANSES Laboratory.
At the request of the European Commission, EPILOBEE focused its work on establishing harmonised criteria for measuring colony weakening and observing infectious bee diseases. This European project did not include the detection of pesticides, but it should help to propose still more comprehensive research and surveillance work, in order to take into account all the factors potentially behind the observed mortality phenomena, as is already being done by ANSES in its Sophia-Antipolis Laboratory and in the framework of its risk assessment work.
Main results of the EPILOBEE project
Over two consecutive years, this programme yielded a considerable amount of data that is already being used to better estimate the variability in mortality rates by geographical zone in Europe. A first report published in April 2014 presented the results obtained during the first year of the project. The report published on 30 April 2015 concerned the second year and showed how the situation with regard to bee colony mortalities changed over the two years.
During the two years of the EPILOBEE project, more than 176,745 bee colonies were visited. The rates of winter mortality were lower overall during the second year, varying according to the countries from 2.4% to 15.4% (compared with from 3.2% to 32.4% the first winter). In one third of the participating Member States, the rate of winter mortality was less than 10%. Interregional differences were also observed. A milder winter in the second year of the study could, at least in part, explain the decline in mortality observed.
Mortality rates of colonies during the beekeeping season (spring-autumn 2014) were between 0.04% and 11.1%. Lower than the winter mortality rates, they were generally identical to those of the previous season.
With regard to the prevalence of diseases affecting bee health, an overall downward trend was observed in the second year, although this decline was not statistically significant for several countries.
For American foulbrood and European foulbrood (two brood diseases caused by bacteria), prevalence was below 12% and 8% respectively in all Member States for the two years.
No outbreaks of Aethina tumida (small hive beetle) or Tropilaelaps spp. (mites), both pests exotic to Europe, were detected during the course of the project. It should be noted that A. tumida was discovered in Italy in September 2014 after the end of the apiary visits carried out in the framework of EPILOBEE.
In addition, cases of varroasis were recorded in almost all the Member States and cases of nosemosis were observed in 10 countries during the second year of the programme, with its prevalence exceeding 10% in only three of these States. Finally, only a few cases of chronic paralysis were detected during the two years of the programme.
What is the outlook after EPILOBEE?
The European EPILOBEE programme helped to obtain a large quantity of data on bee colony mortality but also on the health situation of the colonies, the use of veterinary treatments, and the environment of the apiaries visited, within the 17 Member States participating in the project. The analysis of all of these data is in progress and will lead to an exploration of the statistical links between colony losses and the data collected in order to identify some of the risk factors affecting bee health. These descriptive data are an essential basis for conducting studies seeking to explain bee mortality.
In France, the surveillance programme is run by the Directorate General for Food (DGAL) of the Ministry of Agriculture (Résabeille scheme) in the framework of the national epidemiological surveillance platform for animal health (ESA Platform), and the data obtained are analysed by ANSES. France is a pioneer in the field of understanding the role of pesticides in phenomena of bee colony weakening. Indeed, in addition to the Résabeille programme, the DGAL has now tasked the Agency with an "ecotoxicology" mission, which consists in detecting the presence of pesticides in samples of honey and bee bread from apiaries that were visited during the EPILOBEE project. The data obtained are analysed at ANSES in the framework of the ESA Platform and will be included in the analysis of risk factors for colony loss.
ANSES and bee health
In September 2014, following detection of the presence of the small hive beetle (A. tumida) in the south of Italy, ANSES coordinated the production of guidelines on its surveillance at European level. In addition, in order to strengthen the vigilance system in France, training courses were organised mainly at the beginning of 2015, by the Sophia-Antipolis Laboratory in partnership with the DGAL.
Vigilance with regard to A. tumida has been included in the ESA Platform's "Bees" topic. A regular update on the development of this introduction is provided on the websites of the ESA Platform and the European Union Reference Laboratory.
Furthermore, the Sophia-Antipolis Laboratory is working to develop and validate methods for detecting and identifying pesticides that are toxic to bees in every beekeeping matrix (bees, larvae, pollen, honey, bee bread, nectar).
The laboratory is also participating in the ANSES internal request on co-exposure of bees and bee colonies to various stress factors (pathogens, plant protection products, veterinary drugs, etc.).
Lastly, with its extensive skills in the assessment of plant protection products, ANSES has also been called upon to improve the guidance documents on assessing the risks associated with plant protection products for the environment, and for bees in particular.