Although a recent proposal to restrict the use of three neonicotinoids failed to gain support from the qualified majority of member states on an appeals committee, the European Commission (EC) has announced its intention to proceed with the plan as part of its bid to better protect honeybees. Basing its decision on a European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) scientific report that “identified ‘high acute risks’ for bees as regards exposure to dust in several crops such as maize, cereals and sunflower, to residue in pollen and nectar in crops like oilseed rape and sunflower and to guttation in maize,” the Commission has agreed to limit the use of clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiametoxam “for seed treatment, soil application (granules) and foliar treatment on bee- attractive plants and cereals” for a period of two years starting December 1, 2013. Under the plan, “the remaining authorized uses are available only to professionals,” with possible exceptions for the treatment of “bee-attractive crops in greenhouses” or “open-air fields only after flowering.” See EC News Release, April 29 and May 3, 2013.

Meanwhile, two new studies have attempted to identify additional causes behind colony collapse disorder (CCD), a phenomenon implicated in bee die-offs worldwide since 2006. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released a joint “Report on the National Stakeholders Conference on Honey Bee Health” held October 15-17, 2012, in Alexandria, Virginia, where experts gathered to discuss “the current state of knowledge regarding the primary factors that scientists believe have the greatest impact on managed bee health.”

According to a May 1 USDA press release, the conference concluded that multiple factors have played a role in honey bee colony declines, “including parasites and disease, genetics, poor nutrition and pesticide exposure.” In particular, the report points to the parasitic Varroa mite “as the major factor underlying colony loss in the U.S. and other countries,” a challenge compounded by “widespread resistance to the chemicals beekeepers use to control mites within the hive.” USDA and EPA have also called for additional research into the effects of pesticide exposure while emphasizing that beekeepers should work with federal and state partners to improve the nutrition and genetic diversity of their hives.

“The decline in honey bee health is a complex problem caused by a combination of stressors, and at EPA we are committed to continuing our work with USDA, researchers, beekeepers, growers and the public to address this challenge,” said Acting EPA Administrator Bob Perciasepe. “The report we’ve released today is the product of unprecedented collaboration, and our work in concert must continue. As the report makes clear, we’ve made significant progress, but there is still much work to be done to protect the honey bee population.”

In addition, a second study published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (PNAS) has suggested that “the widespread apicultural use of honey substitutes, including high-fructose corn syrup, may… compromise the ability of honey bees to cope with pesticides and pathogens and contribute to honey bee losses.” Wenfu Mao, et al., “Honey constituents up-regulate detoxification and immunity genes in the western honey bee Apis mellifera,” PNAS, May 2013. After feeding bees “a mixture of sucrose and powdered sugar” with added chemical components found in honey, University of Illinois researchers reported that some of these constituents—and especially p-coumaric acid—“increase the expression of detoxification genes that help keep honey bees healthy,” according to a May 1 press release.

Present in the outer walls of all pollen grains, p-coumaric acid not only turned on detoxification genes, but also “immunity genes that code for antimicrobial proteins,” raising questions among the researchers about the immune systems of bees raised on high-fructose corn syrup diets that lack this essential chemical. “If I were a beekeeper, I would at least try to give them some honey year-round,” one of the authors said, “because if you look at the evolutionary history of Apis mellifera, this species did not evolve with high fructose corn syrup. It is clear that honey bees are highly adapted to consuming honey as part of their diet.”