The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has awarded a grant of €100,000 to a consortium of European scientific institutes to study the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in honey bees.
The nine-month project — which begins this month — is designed to identify factors that may contribute to CCD, in a bid to understand the phenomenon which is believed to have wiped out large numbers of both honey and bumble bees in recent years.
Honey bees play an important role in the pollination of crops and a decline in bee populations could have a serious impact on agricultural production, and in turn the production of ingredients.
Since 2003, there have been reports of serious losses of bees from beehives in Europe, but the true extent of these is hard to estimate as data collection is fragmented and surveillance methodologies are diverse.
The exact cause of CCD is not known, although various factors are thought to be responsible, including starvation, viruses, mites, pesticide exposure and climate change.
Hubert Deluyker, EFSA's director of scientific co-operation and assistance, said: "This project will be an important step forward in international efforts to understand and help tackle the reported decline in bee populations, which could have widespread implications not only in environmental terms but also with regard to the food chain."
Money is being ploughed into research worldwide. Last year, ice cream manufacturer Haagen Dasz launched a campaign called Haagen Dasz Loves Honey Bees. It promised researchers in the US $250,000 to look into the decline of the bee population, funded by sales of a special edition ice cream flavour called Vanilla Honey Bee.
The company is concerned that supply of ingredients such as almonds, cherries, strawberries and raspberries could be hit if sufficient crops cannot be pollinated. Some 40% of the ice cream flavours it uses are dependent on honey bee pollination.
The US government pledged $4 million in funding last July to the University of Georgia to study the causes of CCD.
Scientists in the UK, meanwhile, trained a springer spaniel named Toby to seek out bee nests as part of a £112,000 study into the decline in bee populations.