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Agriculture and rural development
News article15 March 2022Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development1 min read

Beekeeping sector: results of the pilot study on honey bee selection

Bees entering their hive

The European Commission published on 15 March 2022 the results of the pilot study entitled “Restructuring of the honey bee chain and varroa resistance breeding and selection programme” financed by the EU. This project, the largest study on honey bee selection ever conducted in Europe, explored the possibilities for increasing the resistance of commercially available honey bees to the varroa mite by selective breeding. It also analysed ways to improve beekeepers’ access to resistant material. It finally demonstrated that selection on varroa tolerance can be efficient and detailed how breeding structures should be established. Its results will contribute to reducing the treatment of bees with chemical and pharmaceutical products.

The research took place between 2018 and 2021 and was conducted by a consortium (EurBeST) of scientists, beekeepers, breeder associations and apiculture experts from 11 EU countries.

Honey bees have been under huge stress for several years, due to intensification of agricultural practices as well as climatic changes and globalisation, which bring new diseases to bees. Amongst them is the parasitic mite Varroa destructor, which leads to the death of most infested colonies within a few months if no treatment is performed by beekeepers. Since its arrival in Europe in the late 1970’s, varroa infests most colonies and represents the most impacting pathogen threat for honey bees and the beekeeping industry worldwide.

The study showed that some bees are able to develop defences and survive mite infestation. As this ability can be transmitted to the next generation, it opened up the possibility for beekeepers to specifically select and breed for varroa-resistant bees. While selection works, it is costly. The study concludes that the success of breeding programmes would depend on their dimension and consistent development over several years, as well as on the level of funding provided.

The EU’s apiculture sector

The number of beehives is continuously growing in the EU. In 2020, there were approximately 19 million beehives in the EU. These hives a handled by 615 000 beekeepers.

Number of beehives in the EU (in thousand)
Number of beehives in the EU (in thousand)

The EU produces approximately 275 000 tonnes of honey, making the EU the second largest honey producer after China (500 000 tonnes). EU production has increased by 15% during the last 5 years, but the EU still does not produce enough honey to cover its own consumption. The rate of self-sufficiency is around 60%.

A more detailed overview is available here.

Related links

Restructuring of the honey bee chain and varroa resistance breeding and selection programme

EU honey policy