EU Pollinator Week 2023 Highlights
(For more information, access to the recordings and the slides, please visit www.eupollinatorweek.com/resources)
The European Pollinator Week took place on November 28-30 in a variety of online, in-person and hybrid sessions. It featured a diverse set of presentations and debates on relevant scientific, technical and political topics surrounding pollinators.
As was highlighted by MEPs Juozas Olekas and Martin Hojsik, pollinators play a crucial role in safeguarding healthy ecosystems, our economy and our culture. Pollinators bring no less than 22 billion euros to our economy in Europe, pollinate two-thirds of our most important crops, and are an essential element in securing the regeneration of nature.
Scientific insights made it clear that the diverse crises we face are interconnected and they require for us to think holistically about pandemics, war, climate, and biodiversity challenges. We are facing skyrocketing species extinction risks, and extreme climate events are becoming more extreme and regular. We have witnessed three super El Niño events in the last 25 years, with 2023 being the hottest year ever recorded.
Researchers have also emphasised the risks of climate change for pollinators. Speakers explained that climate change should be thought of in terms of rising temperatures and the increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme climate events. Droughts, floods, heatwaves and other extreme events create conditions that significantly affect pollinator populations. It has also been explained that plants and pollinators have some capacity for adaptation and movement in response to climate change. Nevertheless, they cannot respond to the quickly changing climate, much less to extreme events. We cannot expect nature to become resilient to climate change, considering that the temperature shift it produces is 30 times faster than, for example, the changing temperatures 30 thousand years ago.
Furthermore, climate change also has disastrous effects on beekeeping practices. For example, honeys have reduced quality and sometimes have humidity problems. There is an increase in honey production costs and more significant colony losses. Beekeepers are then calling for a radical agricultural policy reform that ensures an extensive agroecological approach across Europe. Policy measures should also include ambitious ecological schemes targeting pollinators, supporting and stimulating farmers to apply pollinator-friendly farming practices.
Beekeeping Session: "Honey Directive, Labelling and Fraud"
In response to the climate and biodiversity crisis, we have reached a point where we must not only protect but also become stewards, the protectors of nature and wildlife, to ensure that environmental decline is halted and reversed. However, we can only help nature regenerate if we also support pollinators. Pollinators play a functional role without which ecosystems cannot thrive. Given the climate crisis we face, pollinators are our allies in helping nature to rebalance. Still, we need to ensure the indispensable climatic and environmental conditions they need so they can thrive.
Pollinators and Nature Restoration
Supporting pollinators is an essential component of nature restoration. Experts expressed that nature restoration comprises a vast series of measures to halt and reverse the decline in natural services and wildlife populations. A fundamental component of nature restoration is protecting pollinators, especially when we find alarming findings that jeopardise pollination services. In Europe, 10% of bee and butterfly species are at risk of extinction. In some instances, this means that the plants that depend on their pollination are also at risk.
Therefore, the Nature Restoration Law is a pivotal legislation to ensure that natural systems achieve sustainability. The legislative proposal aims to restore 20% of land and sea areas by 2030. However, this objective can only be met with ambitious and precise measures, including legally binding targets and clear and direct financing. If the Nature Restoration Law truly seeks to achieve its objectives, it must reach the people in the field through discourse, training, and financial support. Without legally established financial aid for farmers, transition measures risk not only being unfair but downright unfeasible.
Data and Pollinators
Data and monitoring also play a fundamental part in restoration efforts. We need data to track environmental conditions and population trends of pollinators. These efforts are not only in the name of scientific knowledge but to fill the data gaps that affect our capacities to tailor and monitor the performance of public policies. Luckily, pollinators are also our allies regarding our need for data. Bees are excellent biomonitors, with evidence coming from research projects.
Aligned with these needs, the EU Pollinator Hub actively addresses the multifaceted issues encountered by pollinators in their natural habitats. The hub's core mission revolves around the collection, centralization, and interpretation of data to establish a comprehensive understanding of pollinator dynamics. Nevertheless, the standardisation of data poses a formidable challenge that the Pollinator Hub is working to address, necessitating rigorous data quality checks, curation efforts, and the application of FAIR principles to enhance data accessibility and reusability. According to the FAIR principles, data should be findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable.
In parallel, the European Open Science Cloud (EOSC) underscores the intrinsic value of data utilisation and re-use. Since its inception in 2016, EOSC has been striving to connect diverse infrastructures to facilitate data access and foster interdisciplinary collaboration. With data and science openness identified as a top priority by the Council of the European Union, EOSC has evolved into a legal entity with active participation from over 260 organisations across Europe. This collective endeavour is aimed at addressing the substantial cost—estimated at 10.2 billion euros per year—associated with the absence of FAIR data. In a bid to further collaboration and bolster research efforts, EOSC is slated to unveil a new pathogens portal in July 2023.
High-Level Conference (Hybrid): "FUTURE FOR POLLINATORS: The Nature Restoration Law and pollinators" - Denis Michez, UMons, Belgium
Simultaneously, EUROSTAT assumes a pivotal role in environmental accounting, with a coming strengthened role related to pollinator data as proposed amendments to regulation EU 691/2011 currently undergoing trilogues. EUROSTAT is introducing new ecosystem accounts, placing emphasis on the role of pollination in ecosystem services accounting. The data from these accounts will be reported in simplified layouts, elucidating the contribution of wild pollinators to crop production. While the initial reporting date, set for 2026, is subject to ongoing political negotiations, EUROSTAT's engagement extends to Statistics on Agricultural Input and Output (SAIO). With an ambitious goal to provide comparable data by 2026, covering 75% of the utilised agricultural area at the EU level, this figure is anticipated to increase to 85% by 2028. Legislation mandating users to share data on Plant Protection Products (PPP) use with authorities is projected to further boost data coverage to 95%. The SAIO data collection is poised to commence in the harvest year 2026, with the publication of data expected in 2028.
Insights from research and pollinator-centred projects
Besides major efforts in data collection, centralisation and interoperability, research in the field was also highlighted during the week. Initiatives like the Beenet monitoring project in Italy also revealed important results, where levels of contamination from pesticide use have been tracked from wild bees and honeybees. The Beenet project provided us once more with troubling findings. Researchers found that from all collected samples of bee bread across Italy, 70% had fungicides and 65% insecticides. Besides, of all found chemical substances, only 23% are not toxic to bees. However, the situation is even worse than it appears. Samples showed diverse contamination from different insecticides, pesticides and herbicides, thus elevating the risk of a cocktail effect, further endangering the health of pollinators. These results are troubling since there is no reason to think that Italian agriculture does not have exceptionally high contamination levels compared to other European countries. Thus, similar results may reasonably be expected in other contexts.
More problematically, since bees are excellent bioindicators, the pesticide exposure they reveal means that risks extend beyond them. Other pollinators, wildlife and human health, are also at risk of pesticide contamination and its effects. The conclusions again point towards a need to reduce pesticide exposure in the environment. However, reducing pesticide contamination levels has proven to be a significant challenge in Europe. The European Parliament recently rejected the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Regulation after it underwent a complicated negotiation process.
Besides the agencies’ work on risk assessment, the week was also filled with a wide range of presentations on pollinator-related research and initiatives from various projects. Research and monitoring projects like SPRING, Safeguard, and the initiatives by the Spanish CREAF are filling significant gaps in both monitoring initiatives and testing research. Other projects, like B-THENET, create new opportunities for improving and sharing best beekeeping practices.
Significant highlights from these presentations include the confirmation of pollinator population decline across Europe. For example, the Spring project found that there has been a 30% decrease in butterflies in the last 30 years. Additionally, the CREAF has demonstrated the importance of measuring the cocktail effects of both fungicides and pesticides, along with other stressors such as those produced by climate change. The Safeguard project has also emphasised climate change's impacts on pollinator populations, particularly in the lowlands of the Iberian peninsula. Pollinator populations decline in these areas, and some move to higher altitudes in response to rising temperatures and environmental degradation.
The B-THENET project also featured important developments. Besides its training and information-sharing work, the project identified and stimulated discussions on the challenges that European beekeepers face. One of those challenges is the lack of accessibility to veterinary medicinal products, particularly for treating varroa, one of the most common parasites affecting honeybees in Europe.
Debates on political developments: the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Regulation & New Genomic Techniques
Representatives of the farming sector have also voiced some of their concerns with the Sustainable Use Regulation, ensuring that they do not seek to undermine or push back the legislative proposal. Their concerns were mainly about a lack of alternatives and various forms of uncertainty that the regulation could provide for food producers. During the debate, it has been noted that ambitious targets established by the European Commission, such as the reduction of 50%, refer to pesticide use and risk. This means that withdrawing the most dangerous pesticides from the market ensures a giant leap towards reaching reduction targets.
Moreover, meeting ambitious reduction targets is an increasing priority not only for environmental protection but also because of matters of public interest. There is increasing citizen awareness about the chemical residues in their food, water, and environment. There are constantly new petitions, polls, and protests regarding pesticide contamination. These public voice acts are calls that politicians will need to hear. If they fail to do so and continue to do business as usual, major policies such as the Common Agricultural Policy may also face significant legitimacy and public support risks.
Other proposals including those based on the use of New Genomic Techniques brought opposing voices to the table. The European Commission proposed a new framework for the use of NGTs in Europe, mostly for new relaxed authorisation procedures for NGTs, in contrast to the ruling and more stringent norm on GMOs. The European Commission and the Spanish Presidency presented their position and positive view of NGTs. Their optimism is based on the expected pest and climate change resilience of NGT plants. Findings by the Joint Research Centre (JRC) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) further back such optimism.
However, optimism about NGTs is challenged by significant concerns of youth representatives and organic farmers. They have insisted on the irreversible risks that unleashing NGTs into nature. Dissenting voices called for the precautionary principle to be applied in the decision-making process. At the same time, youth representatives insisted on the intergenerational issues at stake and current generations' duty to ensure a healthy and uncompromised environment for future generations.
Furthermore, civil society representatives have also emphasised the lack of independent research on NGTs. The available evaluations by EFSA are not infallible. We have already seen this with the devastating impact that neonicotinoids have had on bees, while these were also once deemed safe by public authorities. More importantly, we still need more rigorous criteria for NGTs. For example, the impact of plant modification on nectar production and flower form could significantly affect pollinators and pollination, and beekeepers expect more significant criteria. The discussion on NGTs will undoubtedly continue and, hopefully, it will seek further involvement by independent researchers and citizens.
The EU Pollinators Initiative & Pesticide Risk Assessment
The EU Pollinators Initiative was also a fundamental component of the week’s discussions. The Initiative was first adopted in 2018, underwent a revision process in 2021, and a new version was adopted in 2023. The latest version integrates feedback from European institutions as well as the European Court of Auditors and the Committee of the Regions. The Initiative is a landmark in pollinator protection and was recently adopted by the European Parliament.
DG ENVI introduced the audience to the main features of the revised initiative, also stating that it comes partly as a response to the citizens' claims for bee-friendly environments. In particular, it responds to the citizen claims in the European Citizens’ Initiative ‘Save Bees and Farmers’, which collected over a million signatures.
The Pollinator Initiative seeks to improve knowledge with comprehensive monitoring schemes to monitor population trends, with expected support from a future Nature Restoration Law, should the Parliament adopt the bill. Monitoring will also involve regular updates of the existing Red List Assessment, identifying and assessing threat levels of individual species.
The Initiative also aims to tackle the causes of pollinator decline, including measures that target agriculture and pesticide use. It seeks to establish conservation plans through programmes such as Life and Buzz Lines and provide guidance for urban areas and greening plans. At the same time, it includes a strong communication and engagement plan, focusing on youth and business.
DG AGRI also presented some of its new measures to support pollinator-friendly farming. The proposal includes mobilising resources in the new Common Agricultural Policy, benefiting from a framework they deem more ambitious than the previous one. They also insisted on the importance of area-based interventions beneficial for pollinators, including support for organic farming, maintenance and development of landscape features, and reducing pesticide use and risk. Supporting that reduction is sought by compensating farmers for a sustainability transition, the application of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), precision targeting, and supporting agroforestry and agroecology. Finally, DG AGRI expects to develop a new farmland pollinator indicator in response to the new Nature Restoration Law (NRL) framework if adopted.
Regarding the protection of pollinators from pesticides, DG SANTE presented important measures to ensure that Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is appropriately implemented and that harmonised risk indicators are achieved. On the controversial matter of emergency authorisations of banned pesticides, it has been emphasised that a recent court judgement on the matter (C-162/21) is legally binding. As the judgement establishes, human and animal health should be prioritised over increased plant production, thus further restricting the cases of emergency authorisations. To respond to these developments, the Commission has mandated the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to develop specific protocols to assess the justifications for member states requesting emergency authorisations. The protocols are (likely) expected to be delivered this year.
Furthermore, the risk assessment of pesticides has also been at the centre of attention. The 2013 EFSA Bee Guidance Document, mandated to be reviewed in 2019 and adopted in May 2023, is now awaiting endorsement by the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed (PAFF Committee). But, before the approval, the European Commission must conduct an analysis and revision process for necessary updates in implementing regulations (546/2011 regarding uniform principles for evaluation and authorisation of PPPs and 283 & 284/2013 setting out data requirements for PPPs). It is expected that implementing regulations will soon be updated and the relevant measures of the guidance document adopted.
The European Food Safety Authority and the European Chemicals Agency had the opportunity to provide detailed information on the development process and status of their guidance documents. EFSA highlighted the road to establishing Specific Protection Goals, which is the maximum tolerable impact in risk assessment. As it stands, there is a limit of no more than 10% of colony strength loss allowed for honeybees. However, such specific protection goal is not extended to other species because of insufficient data.
Youth & Beekeepers in the future of pollinators
The EU Pollinator Week was also the occasion to reflect on and celebrate the role of young citizens in the future of pollinators. The European Commission and the Joint Research Centre (JRC) showcased their initiatives for youth involvement in the Pollinators Initiative. With a budget of 4.5 million euros, the Commission is developing the Youth for Pollinators pilot project at the request of the European Parliament. It is a significant step for youth involvement in policy-making and decision-making processes. The project also supports other activities of young people, including research and land management activities, and other initiatives such as campaigns and citizen initiatives aiming to reduce pesticide use. The project also seeks to introduce training and education programmes into the school curricula to stimulate the early engagement of pupils.
The youth also proves to be actively involved in the protection of pollinators. Initiatives such as Pollinators Ambassadors and the Global Young Biodiversity Network demonstrate that young citizens are not only asking to be heard. They are working to raise awareness of the importance of pollinators and to create solutions based on a socially-responsible entrepreneurial spirit. They seek social innovations and develop practical tools to change our social mindset through storytelling, symbolic actions and policy recommendations.
Young beekeepers have also expressed the many challenges they face. As most European beekeepers insist, their livelihoods are in peril. Deteriorating environmental and market conditions are producing detrimental effects for beekeepers. Honey fraud and adulteration are significant issues for the future of beekeeping. However, the risk is not only the loss of beekeeping. Many crops depend on the pollination provided by honeybees, so the future of food production also depends on the sustainability of beekeeping as an economic activity. Hence, young beekeepers claim they need support to keep the beekeeping profession alive.
The EU Pollinator Week was a small sample of vast and interconnected efforts that are being undertaken around Europe to halt and reverse the decline in pollinator populations. Researchers, politicians, representatives of European Institutions, activists, and beekeepers have joined together to learn from one another and to continue the dialogue on the importance of beekeepers. The week has emphasised the essential role of pollinators, the power of open and interconnected data to address the challenges they face, and the need for the political world to follow the claims of citizens who demand safe and healthy environments.