Page last updated at 13:55 GMT, Thursday, 20 November 2008

Why are Europe's bees dying?

Members of the European Parliament have joined a growing chorus urging action to save the world's threatened bee populations.

As Europe business reporter Ben Shore explains, the phenomenon is far more serious than simply a rise in honey prices.

Bees on a frame
Bees seem to be vulnerable to a combination of threats

In the plush surroundings of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, a continental breakfast is a common sight. Between 0730 and 1100 the various eateries around the building churn out coffee, almond croissants and orange juice at an impressive rate.

But a cloud hangs over the future of this most European of institutions. That cloud is the worrying decline in bee populations.

Bees not only produce honey, they pollinate many of the plants and vegetation which we then go on to consume.

And the continental breakfast? Well, bees pollinate almond trees, so if bees were to die out, the almond filling for our croissants would disappear. The one-euro cup of coffee would suddenly rocket in price, as would the orange juice, because bees pollinate the majority of coffee plants and orange trees.

Even milk would be more difficult to come by, because bees pollinate most types of animal feed, and the alternatives dairy farmers would have to use, probably cereals, are far more expensive.

More data needed

The threat to breakfast is very real. The bee population of Europe has been falling at an alarming rate. In the UK, it dropped by around 30% between 2007 and 2008, according to the British Bee Keepers Association.

Croissants (file pic)
The continental breakfast might not survive if the bees disappear

But Britain is only a minor player in the European beekeeping scene, with around 274,000 hives. According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Italy had 1,091,630 hives in 2007 and France 1,283,810.

In the same EFSA study Italy revealed its bee mortality rate was 40-50% - a worrying figure for a country with an industrial-scale beekeeping industry.

But EFSA officials point out that the figures are not very reliable because before the bees started dying out there was no harmonisation in the way different countries collected statistics on their bee populations.

When it comes to actually working out why the bees are dying the confusion is even greater.

Scientists think something called the varroa mite is partly responsible for the bee emergency. They suck the blood of infected insects, weakening their immune systems.

But it is thought there may be other pressures on bees, including some pesticides and the prolonged spells of wet weather which have been seen during the last two European summers.

The situation is so bad there is even a name for it: Colony Collapse Disorder, and the lack of information is one of the things that so concern MEPs.

They are calling on the EU's executive arm, the European Commission, to spend more money on research into what is causing the bees to die out.

MEPs also want the creation of special recovery zones on arable land, full of nectar-rich plants. It is thought such areas could help bee populations to recover.

The beekeeping industry is welcoming the attention from European politicians, but the commission will take time to act, and time is something bees lack.

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