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Are bees and other pollinators protected from pesticides?

On 17-18 May, the EU Commission and the Member States will meet at the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed (SCoPAFF) to continue the discussions on defining the Specific Protection Goals (SPGs) for bumble bees and solitary bees. EU Member States already established a 10% of colony strength loss for honey bees in June 2021 as an acceptable impact of pesticides.

The general protection goals established by the legislative framework are translated into specific ones[1] (as they are too broad to directly apply them), establishing numerical “thresholds of concern” or thresholds of unacceptable effects (Specific Protection Goals). SPGs are then integrated into the Environmental Risk Assessment (ERA) of pesticides, in which honeybees have been historically integrated as representatives of pollinating species.

SPGs are used to establish trigger values to decide if the pesticide is risky to bees and, as a result, further testing in (semi)field needs to be performed. Additionally, SPGs are used to determine if there is a statistical difference showing a negative impact of the pesticides in the field studies.

As a result, SPGs determine what needs to be protected and why, where to protect it, over what time period, and with what degree of certainty.

Currently, the European Commission is proposing to the Member States not to define a fixed threshold (%) of SPGs for bumble bees and solitary bees because of the lack of data available to set them. The proposal on the table includes performing field trials on wild bees only if laboratory studies done on honeybees and other non-target arthropods show that the pesticide may involve a risk. Consequently, the proposal implicitly sets the threshold of 10% acceptable impact on honeybees to wild bees.

Still, some Member States are in favour of a fixed threshold, as it allows a more coherent, transparent, and harmonised risk assessment through the Union.

Noa Simon Delso, Scientific Director at BeeLife, says: "We believe that wild bees, especially solitary bees, demand a higher level of protection than social bees because they don't have the colony to buffer the impact of pesticides. Furthermore, despite the awareness-raising efforts to promote wild pollinators among citizens, the amount of engaged citizens protecting their populations is not enough yet."

BeeLife believes that the regulatory framework and ERA should integrate data on wild bee toxicology created in laboratory testing and (semi)field data. Otherwise, the information to set SPGs for wild bees will never be available and there will not be a motivation for standardising protocols for wild bee testing or risk assessment. Furthermore, considering the biological and ecological differences of wild bees from honey bees, basing SPGs on a fixed threshold of 3-5% will allow to finalise the bumble and solitary bee guidance document, and risk assessors will finally receive the tools to perform the ERA of pesticides on bees. Such a threshold could be reviewed in the future, whenever the required data will be available.

[1] EFSA Scientific Committee (2016) Guidance to develop specific protection goals options for environmental risk assessment at EFSA, in relation to biodiversity and ecosystem services


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