The European Reference Laboratory for Honey Bee Health – Part 1

Mike Brown and Gay Marris, PhD, National Bee Unit (NBU)
The Sophia-Antipolis Laboratory of ANSES takes on this important role

BEEKEEPING IS practised throughout the European Union (EU), both at the amateur and the professional level. There are estimated to be 700,000 beekeepers in the EU, the vast majority of whom (97%) are non-professional (EU, 2010; see honeybee_health_communication_en.pdf).

Together these small scale beekeepers currently manage more than two thirds of the Western honey bee (Apis mellifera L) colonies believed present in Europe. Annual honey production is in the order of 200,000 tons and beekeeping also yields other commercial hive products including propolis, royal jelly and wax, as well as generating revenue through the sales of the bees themselves.

However, the primary service provided by honey bees is the pollination of a range of economically important crops. They are also responsible for the pollination of countless other wild flora and are thus key to the preservation of myriad natural landscapes. Insect pollination services in Europe (to which managed honey bees are important contributors) have been recently valued at ¤ 153 billion per year (equivalent to £127 billion). Consensus of recent domestic estimates places a minimum figure of at least £200 million on honey bee pollination in the UK (National Audit Office, 2009; Defra unpublished data).

Percentage of NBU-inspected colonies found dead in England
and Wales between 2002 and 2010

Although individual Member States (MS), to a greater or lesser extent, may regulate their respective beekeeping sectors, in recognition of the economic and environmental value of managed honey bee stocks the EU has put in place a series of harmonised, pan-European rules to protect and maintain healthy bees. However, in spite of these safeguards, in recent years there have been several reports of increased and sometimes very sudden mortality in bees in the EU (and also elsewhere).


In 2010, British researchers collated data from 18 European countries to track the changes in the number of honey bee colonies (and beekeepers) over several decades (Potts et al, 2010; see: Although in the Mediterranean they found

Honey bees are one of the insect key pollinators. Here a
honey bee visits cherry blossom

a small rise in colony numbers, in certain countries losses have been quite severe. The main finding was that in central continental Europe about one quarter of all bee colonies has been lost since 1985. Such observations of colony declines are matters of growing international concern.


The graph on the left shows the proportion (percent) of English and Welsh colonies inspected by the NBU during each beekeeping season between 2002 and 2010 that were subsequently found to be dead. You will see that while 2009 and 2010 were comparatively good years (and provisional figures for 2011 are also low), there has been a general rise in the number of within-season colony losses each year, with 2008 being particularly bad. Overall, using internationally recognised calculations from the global Prevention of COlony LOSSes network (COLOSS) ( over winter losses for England and Wales from 2008 to 2009 were 16%; our over winter losses for 2009 to 2010 were 21%.

The Need for a European Reference Laboratory for Honey Bee Health

You can view all texts relating to the
Community legal framework on honey
bee diseases and disorders at

There are various theories as to the cause or causes of colony losses. Bee pests and diseases, pesticide poisoning, the impact of genetically modified crops and stressors linked to changing climatic conditions or deficiencies in nutrition have all been implicated. As yet, however, no direct causal link between losses and a specific agent or environmental factor has been established. This leaves scientists and beekeepers without any clear course of action to address declines. In the absence of systematic national data on colony health and losses, it is impossible to understand the big picture; that is ‘what is the overall health of managed honey bees across Europe and what is the extent of their decline?’ In 2008 a consortium of seven European Partners (including the UK represented by Mike Brown of the NBU), financed by The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), undertook a pan-European honey bee surveillance project which sought information not only on the prevalence of colony losses but also on the type of surveillance systems used by each country. Data were obtained from 24 countries and we are very proud to report that the NBU’s bee health surveillance system was recognised as the best in Europe. You can find the full final report at


EFSA’s main conclusions were that there is:

  • a general weakness in most* of the surveillance systems presented by the 24 countries investigated;
  • a lack of representative data at country level and comparable data at the EU level regarding colony losses;
  • a general lack of standardisation and harmonisation at the EU level (systems, case definitions and data collected);
  • common consensus within the scientific community that colony losses in Europe are multifactorial in origin and there is insufficient knowledge of causative and risk factors.

On the strength of these conclusions, the EFSA project made 20 recommendations that, if met, would improve international understanding of bee health and colony declines. The Animal Health Strategy for the EU places an emphasis on the importance of maintaining and enhancing international diagnostic capabilities and a recent external evaluation of reference laboratories in the field of Animal Health highlighted the need for a similarly networked approach to bee health ( eval_com_ref_labs_report_112009_en.pdf). As a result the European Commission decided to designate a new European Reference Laboratory (EURL) for honey bee health, specifically tasked with addressing the issues identified in the EFSA project. You can read more about the background to this designation in the EC’s communication submitted to the European Parliament and Council in 2010 ( honeybee_health_communication_en.pdf).

All About ANSES

In February 2011 the EC officially appointed the Sophia-Antipolis Laboratory of ANSES, France (French National Agency for Sanitary Safety of Food, Environment and Labour, formerly AFSSA ( as the EURL for honey bee health. This mandate took effect on the 1 April 2011 and will run for five years (until 2016). The NBU has well established links with this organisation and has collaborated closely and for many years in a variety of areas.

*EFSA’s report of international Bee Surveillance systems describes the NBU’s Inspection Programme for England and Wales as ‘the best operating system in all the Bee Surveillance Network Analysis Tools filled in during the project. Strong central and broad field system based on central, provincial and field units… Good involvement of laboratory, training and supervision activities… Strong online communication about all results of the system’.

The head of the EURL is Dr Magali Chabert Ribière. Ribière leads the honey bee pathology unit at ANSES, specialising in molecular biology and virology. The deputy head of the EURL is Dr Marie-Pierre Chauzat, ecopathologist and fellow member in Ribière’s ANSES team. The Sophia Antipolis laboratory is already the national reference laboratory (NRL) and reference laboratory on bee diseases for the Office International des Épizooties (OIE, or the world organisation for animal health). It is also the associated NRL for analysing pesticide residues in foods of animal origin. Its research focuses on bee diseases (parasitic, bacterial and viral) and pathogens as well as beehive and bee product contaminants. The ANSES Laboratory in Sophia Antipolis is officially accredited (by COFRAC) for research into neonicotinoids in bees, beebread and pollen, and for diagnosing American and European foul broods, nosemosis, varroasis, acarosis, small hive beetle, the Asian hornet and many other important pests and pathogens of honey bees. They also carry out research into acaricides in honey. The EC EURL mandate is the ninth awarded to ANSES, out of the ten that the European Commission has allocated to France.

Duties of the EURL

The EURL’s annual programme is established and agreed with the EC, to whom they report directly. The workplan will be revised and adjusted according to budgets and priorities, but the annual budget for all EURL activities is around 250,000 euros. The main duties of the EURL are:

  • development of standardised, harmonised and coordinated (OIE) methods employed by MS for diagnosing honey bee diseases;
  • receipt of pathogen isolates for confirmatory diagnosis, characterisation and epizootic studies;
  • training experts in laboratory diagnosis;
  • collaboration with the competent laboratories of third countries;
  • conducting courses for NRLs in honey bee health;
  • organising comparative tests of diagnostic procedures at EU level;
  • retaining expertise on the Tropilaelaps spp. mites and the small hive beetle (Aethina tumida).

Getting Started

A symptom of American foul brood in an infected colony

In June 2011 the EURL held its first technical and scientific ‘kick off’ meeting at the Commission’s offices in Brussels. This was attended by delegates from European NRLs, plus representatives from almost all (24 out of 27) MS. Mike Brown from Fera’s NBU was present on behalf of England and Wales. Colleagues from the EC’s Directorate General for Health and Consumer Policy Group on bees (DG SANCO) and DG Environment were also there. In opening the two-day event, the DG SANCO emphasised the need to establish harmonised surveillance and diagnostic protocols to obtain a uniform evidence base for Europe, and the parallel need to build international capacity to address bee health issues, in particular colony losses.

The Pilot Surveillance Programme

A sacbrood-infected honey bee larva

As an early priority, the EURL is thus seeking comparable bee health baseline data and evidence of colony losses from all MSs, through a Pilot Surveillance Programme (PSP). Although the exact details of the PSP are still to be finalised, it is expected to run for two to three years and will regularly monitor a random statistically determined number of apiaries from a carefully stratified population of colonies in each MS. The PSP will consider both over-winter and within-season colony weakening and losses, placing surveillance emphasis on diseases and syndromes with relatively high prevalence and impact within the EU beekeeping sector. Likely targets are American and European foul broods (Paenibacillus larvae and Melissococcus plutonius), varroasis (Varroa destructor), nosemosis (Nosema apis and N ceranae), acarosis (Acarapis woodi), sacbrood (sacbrood virus) and paralysis (chronic bee paralysis virus).

Once the PSP protocol (and funding streams) are agreed, the EC will issue an official call to all MS NRLs (for England and Wales this will be the NBU) inviting them to take part in the PSP. Each MS will then submit a proposal (deadline autumn 2011), describing how they will conduct their national surveillance to contribute to the EU-wide dataset sought by the PSP. When proposals and funding are agreed, training will be provided to appointed personnel in each MS, as standard monitoring procedures will have to be rigorously followed not only at the national but also at the European level. Training will take place in the winter of 2011–2012 and it is anticipated that pilot surveillance will begin in early 2012.

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