World Bee Day: what is the EU doing to help pollinators?

World Bee Day on 20th May is a recognition of the vital role wild bees play in our ecosystems to keep the rich diversity of our flowers blooming and to produce the fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds we eat every day. It is also a celebration of beekeeping, honeybees and honey. More than two-thirds of the world’s leading types of crops rely to some extent on animal pollination, mostly by bees but also by hoverflies, moths and butterflies and other insects.

Despite the importance of our wild bees as pollinators, they have experienced a significant decline in recent years, as shown in the pollinators assessment by the International Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). In response, the EU launched the EU Pollinators Initiative last year, setting strategic objectives and actions to be implemented by the EU and its Member States. The actions aim to improve the knowledge of pollinator decline, its causes and consequences, tackle the causes of their decline, and to raise awareness, engage the whole society and promote collaboration.

Among the first steps in the implementation of the EU Pollinators Initiative is the collection of information on the national and regional strategies that are currently taking place in the EU. The first report on these strategies, successes and gaps shows that some EU countries are already committed to halting pollinators decline and successful actions are already having an impact. Examples of EU action are the roll out of the EU wide butterfly monitoring scheme, which will provide the first EU-wide data on our insect populations, and the almost complete ban on the use of neonicotinoid insecticides. The Common Agricultural Policy can fund measures that promote bee-friendly farming, such as semi-natural meadows and flowering margins and fallow on arable fields. For example, an Irish EIP-AGRI-funded pilot action is creating a flexible mechanism that encourages all farmers to make their whole farm more pollinator friendly in a way that is measurable and will not impact on productivity. The Commission has also proposed to increase EU financing for programmes to support beekeeping.

The European Food Safety Authority guidance on how to assess the risks of pesticides to bees played a key role in the neonicotinoid ban, but some Member States have refused to adopt it. It will now be revised by an EFSA scientific working group with the support of a stakeholder consultative group, with the aim that the new guidance can be adopted in 2021.

These actions are very promising, but reversing the current alarming trends will require more ambitious and coordinated action in line with the EU Pollinators Initiative. For the EU initiative to be successful, efforts need to focus on a long-term strategy that connects all stakeholders. The recent public initiative in Bavaria, which gathered the support of nearly a fifth of the citizens within two weeks, shows how much the public cares about the plight of our bees and is resulting in concrete legislative proposals to support bee-friendly farming in Bavaria.

The Commission has just agreed to open on 27th May a European Citizens’ Initiative aiming to save bees and improve insects’ habitats in Europe. It invites the Commission to propose a legal act with mandatory biodiversity targets, the promotion of biodiversity as an objective of the CAP and a dramatic cut in the use of pesticides. If the initiative collects at least a million signatures from at least seven EU countries within a year, the Commission will be obliged to consider legislative proposals. Given the level of public interest, this stands a good chance of happening.