BEE welfare is becoming a priority concern for the European Commission and that is likely to mean even tougher hurdles for approval of pesticides, it became clear this week.
A discussion paper published by the influential Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner, John Dalli, said strategies in place or being planned included: "Approve pesticides at EU level only if they are safe for honeybees."
A spokeswoman for Mr Dalli's office said it was too early to define a "bee-friendly" pesticide but added: "The Commission is revising the data requirements for the submission of pesticide dossiers ... the new data requirements will introduce a test to better assess the chronic effects of pesticides and the impact on colonies."
The spokeswoman added that the new requirements would include assessment of newly recognised ways in which bees might be exposed, like 'guttation' – exudation of toxic moisture from plants, long after the original pesticide application has evaporated.
Mr Dalli's statement left a lot of questions unanswered – amounting to: How safe is safe? – but it looked like an important declaration of sympathies, in the context of simmering hostilities between the EU's 700,000 beekeepers and mainstream farmers. There are already requirements to assess the impact of chemicals on insects but new tests on behalf of honeybees in particular would be a significant development.
Mr Dalli said: "The protection of honeybee health is of high importance. The EU should reinforce the framework in place, in the spirit of our Animal Health Strategy principle 'prevention is better than cure', and assist member states and beekeepers in their quest for better and sustainable bee health."
The prospect of more political power for the bee lobby will add significance to a debate scheduled for the annual conference of the British Beekeepers' Association (BBKA) in January. Its moderate executive faces a third year of argument over its policy of accepting funding from agro-chemicals companies in exchange for working with them to try to make their products more bee-friendly.
The BBKA has already been forced to stop endorsing specific products as safe if used properly. It wants to remain free to sell its expertise and its name as appropriate, but a sizeable lobby, led by the Twickenham and Thames Valley beekeepers, says the association should have nothing to do with "the enemy".
In the rest of Europe, bee keepers are much more militantly green. The BBKA has been a fairly placid organisation but its membership has jumped from about 8,000 to about 20,000 in five years, because of raised awareness of bees and the move back to small-scale agricultural activity. A number of BBKA executive members will be facing challenges to their positions. And the Yorkshire federation, which wields 1300 votes through one delegate, has changed its position since last year and will support this year's motion of rebellion, from Twickenham.
EC Commissioner Dalli's paper is at http://ec.europa.eu/food/animal/liveanimals/bees/index_en.htm/