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House of Commons Hansard
14 November 2017
Volume 631

  • We come to an important hour-long debate on the UK bee population.

  • I beg to move,

    That this House has considered the UK bee population.

    Thank you for calling me, Mr Hollobone. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I know that the House and indeed the country is engaged on the great issue of Brexit, an issue on which of course everyone has a great deal to say. I called for this debate because, now more than ever, we need to have a public conversation about the kind of country we want to build for the future. What does the Britain of 20 years hence look like? Does it have stronger environmental protections or weaker ones? We need to lift our eyes beyond the latest parliamentary skirmish and say a little about that.

    Before I turn to the specific issue of bees, I want to say a little about the wider environmental narrative. There are many on the Government Benches who make a direct link between conservatism and conservation. I believe, as I know many of my colleagues do, that generational justice must be about more than simply leaving a strong economic legacy to our children. It must be about a strong environmental legacy, too: a birthright that is richer, more diverse and more sustainable. As the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said, we have “not a freehold” on our planet but “a full repairing lease”.

    Although there are many aspects to that responsibility, from improving air quality to cutting the use of plastic and limiting greenhouse gas emissions, a key priority must be to improve the diversity and sustainability of native animals, from the largest mammal to the smallest invertebrate. We have seen great progress on that score, with the important announcement on ivory sales that was part of a package of measures that led a leading charity to declare in October

    “a fortnight of incredible news for animal welfare in the UK”.

    To turn to bees, well, what a difference a week makes. When I originally applied for the debate, it was in a bid to urge the Government to listen to the latest scientific evidence, put the welfare of bees first and ban neonicotinoids. Then, lo and behold, the Government have done precisely that. On 9 November, just a few days ago, the Secretary of State indicated that he supports further restrictions on the use of neonicotinoids due to their effects on bees and other pollinators. That was a bold and clear decision. In doing so—if I may be impish for a moment—he has shown that rigorous scientific evidence will underpin the Government’s approach to the environment. While some might have had enough of experts in 2016, I am delighted that, in 2017, they are back with a vengeance.

    Why do bees matter? First, they are exceptional animals in their own right. Although there are over 250 species of bee, including 25 species of bumblebee, they have some remarkable characteristics in common. For example, a bee can navigate in an astonishingly sophisticated way by a combination of using the angle of the sun, counting landmarks and exploiting electrical fields. Remarkably, they can exchange information with other bees about the precise location of the perfect flower. Some evidence suggests they do so using movements known as a “waggle dance.”

    Beyond their own intrinsic value, bees play a vital role in the broader environment. That role was summarised beautifully by the poet Kahlil Gibran:

    “To the bee, a flower is the fountain of life.

    And to the flower, the bee is a messenger of love.”

  • I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I apologise that I will not be able to stay for the duration of it. As he is saying, bees are massively important for the production of crops and for the health of our ecosystems. In my constituency, there is a real interest in beekeeping. We have Wirral honey on sale in West Kirby farmers’ market and we have Flourish, a community environmental initiative based at Ford Way, Upton. Does he agree that such initiatives should be supported, promoted and indeed celebrated?

  • I agree and am grateful to the hon. Lady for that helpful contribution.

    The point being got at, whether by a poet or a scientist, is that of the 100 crop species that provide 90% of food worldwide, 70 are pollinated by bees. Bees, as we know, transfer pollen from anthers to stigmas, frequently over long distances. Seeds are produced, but, crucially, genetic diversity, so vital to the health of many plant species, is promoted. That service, which perhaps we take too much for granted, is worth in the order of £600 million a year through increased crop yield in oilseed rape and the quality of various fruit and vegetables.

  • I thank my hon. Friend for giving way on an important point. He has spoken about the ban on neonicotinoids. I wonder how we will ensure that whatever replaces them is equally safe. My farmers have already made the point that what may follow may not be any safer.

  • As always, my hon. Friend makes a critical point. The issue is this. The Government have put a line in the sand, which is that anything that is to go on our crops must pass the test of rigorous academic and expert scrutiny. That applies to neonicotinoids, so it must apply to anything that comes next. Nothing should go on our crops unless it can be shown to be safe. That must be the rule of thumb that we apply.

  • I declare an interest as a beekeeper. We should bank this move, which is a good thing, but it does not answer all of the problems for our bee population. My hon. Friend will be aware that the National Bee Unit has identified the Asian hornet in Devon. It poses a real threat to some of our colonies. Does he agree that the Government should do more to support the National Bee Unit in countering that scourge?

  • My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point first to pay tribute to the National Bee Unit and to raise the issue of the Asian hornet. The landscape is not entirely clear for bees just because neonicotinoids are off the horizon. We should never let down our guard, such is their importance to our environment. I entirely endorse the point.

  • I should also declare my interest both as a beekeeper and as the daughter of a farmer of oilseed rape. Is it not always important to remember that farmers do need to control pests on their crops? The Government must look carefully, as my hon. Friend said earlier, at the evidence available at the time. Can we not elide the debate, for example, about glyphosate with that about neonics?

  • Of course. This is not a zero sum game. It is not the case that a product that is bad for bees is therefore good for farmers or the other way around. It is not beyond the wit of our scientists to come up with products and pesticides—by the way, pesticide is not an evil word—that can be sprayed on to our crops without causing the collateral damage that we want to avoid.

    It is the points made already that lie behind an apocalyptic quote attributed to Albert Einstein—of course, it may well be entirely apocryphal. He is alleged to have said:

    “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years left to live.”

    That may be a little apocalyptic, but it does make the point that bees play a crucial role in our food supply.

  • The hon. Gentleman is making a very good speech. I would like to go back to the point about the alternatives. I wonder whether he saw the observation by the excellent Bumblebee Conservation Trust, which said that

    “many other non-neonicotinoid pesticides can and do cause harm to bumblebees and other pollinators, and we must ensure that neonicotinoids are not simply replaced by equally-problematic equivalents.”

    Does he agree that there is a danger of a switch back to dangerous pyrethroid-based pesticides and that we equally need to guard against that?

  • We must not move from the frying pan into the fire. It seems that the Government have been absolutely robust in showing that it is only those products that can show they do not cause that collateral damage that will get through the net. That principle must be maintained, because pollinators are in decline worldwide.

    This is not purely a UK situation or indeed a European one. The trend is not uniform, but an independent review of the evidence on the status and value of pollinators published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs back in 2014 drew attention to the large losses caused by the varroa mite in the early 1990s. Since then, there has been, as has been said, the Asian hornet. Indeed, the loss of flower-rich habitat is another important cause of the recorded decline in diversity of wild bees and other pollinating insects. If I may be parochial just for a moment, that is just one of the reasons why I am so delighted that Cheltenham Borough Council was persuaded to rethink its plans to rip up the vibrant and diverse floral displays that nourish local pollinators in the town.

  • I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. There are a lot of bee-friendly crops that we can grow, which can help to enhance the bee population. That must be done. I also say to our farming Minister that it is important to have the means to grow the crops. When we no longer use neonicotinoids, we must ensure that we have alternatives that are safer and that we can safely grow those crops. It is absolutely essential that we have both bees and good, bee-friendly crops.

  • I agree with that. It is also vital that we have happy farmers, because farmers are crucial custodians of the countryside. It seems perfectly possible to have a thriving farming community and a thriving community of bees and pollinators too.

    In the vanguard of the fight to support bees and pollinators are our nation’s beekeepers; I am pleased to say that their numbers are growing. In 2013, according to the National Bee Unit’s database, there were over 29,000 beekeepers in England, managing around 126,000 colonies. That is nearly double compared with 2008. I pay tribute to the Gloucestershire Beekeepers Association in Uckington near Cheltenham, which does such excellent work.

    I am proud too of the Government’s role in this field. It is good news that the Government have spent between £1.5 million and £2 million on protecting honey bees in each of the last five years. That has included tackling disease outbreaks and monitoring for exotic pests such as the Asian hornet. An enormous amount of good work is being done via the National Pollinator Strategy, launched in 2014, which is a 10-year plan to

    “improve the state of our bees and other pollinating insects”.

    That includes working with farmers and the public to expand availability of food and habitat resources and so on.

    In the time available, I will turn to the neonicotinoid debate, which has been a difficult one. In December 2013 the EU restricted the use of three neonicotinoids on a number of crops attractive to bees, including oilseed rape, following concerns that queen bees exposed to the pesticide were 26% less likely to be able to start a new colony. However, at that stage the science was rudimentary at best and the UK did not follow suit. Since then, the evidence base has grown dramatically. A pan-European study in June 2017, which covered a crop area equivalent to 3,000 football pitches in the UK, Germany and Hungary, found that increasing levels of neonicotinoid residues in the nests of wild bee species were linked with lower reproductive success, and that exposure to treated crops reduced the overwintering success of honey bee colonies.

    When, earlier this year, the European Commission proposed further restricting the use of those pesticides to plants that spend their entire life cycle in permanent greenhouses, the expert advisory committee backed its decision. As I have already indicated, it is important to take account of the impact on farmers. I was pleased to note that, in the first year without access to these seed treatments, UK oilseed rape yield increased by 6.9%, according to Friends of the Earth.

    As we prepare to leave the EU, I believe that now is not the time to roll back measures to protect our bees. Instead, we should enhance them. As I have already indicated, there is already a strong platform to build on, but we must go further. The national pollinator strategy, which currently supports pollinators through the mandatory and incentivised common agricultural policy measures, can be made to operate more widely still. Farmers and growers across pastoral, mixed and arable farmland are ideally placed to improve the quantity and quality of flower-rich habitats. Let us use our new freedoms to make full use of that potential. Agri-environment schemes such as buffer strips, hay meadows and wildflowers can and should make a huge difference.

    As we look to the future, we must create a country that cherishes and promotes biodiversity. We must recognise that quality of life is measured not purely in pounds, shillings and pence but in the quality of our environment and the richness of the plants and animals we encounter on a walk down the Honeybourne railway line in my constituency or high up on the Cotswold escarpment. Let us continue to do everything we can to reverse the decline of our pollinators. If we carry on with that vital work, we can ensure that the broad, sunlit uplands that we all want future generations to inherit will echo to the sound of the bumblebee.

  • The debate runs until 5.30 pm. I have to call the Front-Benchers at 5.07 pm, and the recommended speech limits are five minutes for the Scottish National party spokesman, five minutes for the Opposition spokesman and 10 minutes for the Minister. Then we will hear from Mr Chalk for three minutes summing up at the end. That means we have 22 minutes and four speakers; if I impose a time limit of five and a half minutes, you should all get in.

  • Thank you, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) on bringing the debate to the House. The fact that we are all here is an indication of our interest in the welfare of bees. It is good to see the Minister in his place since he has a special understanding of that, as indeed does the shadow Minister.

    The intensity of the issue may surprise some who are not from rural constituencies, but the issue also involves urban locations and constituencies. When I first came to this place, I used to stay in St Ermin’s hotel, which has a fantastic bee population on its roof. The hotel produces its own honey. That can happen in urban areas as well, so it is good to know that, although we in the countryside perhaps have control over this, there are many examples in urban areas, including central London not far from where we are now, that are producing excellent honey.

    Some people may not have fully considered the essential nature of bees in our rural economy. I have spoken about that many times in my time as an elected representative. Many in my constituency are probably watching the debate, because we have many beekeepers, and their numbers are increasing, just as they are in the area of the hon. Member for Cheltenham.

    As a young boy—it was not just yesterday—I took my holidays in Strabane and Clady in County Tyrone in the 1960s and 1970s. My aunt Isobel kept honey bees, and as a child I was taught about the fragile nature of the ecosystem and the crucial role that the humble bumblebee has to play in that, alongside the honey bee. There are 18 true species of bumblebee in the UK, many of which are threatened by habitat loss and other changes in the countryside that the hon. Gentleman clearly indicated. Six species remain relatively common, while others have declined to varying degrees.

    I know some hon. Members are into bumblebees. I have had a number of occasions when bumblebees were into me and I got stung. There was a process of learning to be wary when they were about. I am fortunate that I live on a farm and we have bumblebees regularly on our farm every year. The habitat suits them, and we try to ensure that that happens. Some hon. Members will be aware of the two species, the yellow bumblebee and the shrill carder bee, which are of particular concern as their populations have been almost completely decimated. As I said, I have a large number of beekeepers in my constituency, and an active beekeepers association. When I was able to have the honey, it was great. I am a diabetic now, so I am unable to have the lovely clear beautiful honey that the beekeepers make, but it does not take away my longing to have it. I suppose that is the attraction of it, but as long as I do not touch it I will probably be okay.

    Bees are the major pollinators of most of our wildflowers, and if they continue to disappear, those plants will set fewer seeds. There is a fragile ecosystem that we are trying to maintain. My aunt Isobel taught me in Clady and Strabane, many years ago, about that fragile ecosystem and how we all come together to play our part as cogs in the wheel of what happens. Some of the sweeping changes to the countryside, which may come to be dominated by a different range of plants, could mean the countryside losing its colour if rare plants disappear. That is a fact; it is not made up. There is evidence that the process is already under way, which is why the motion the hon. Member for Cheltenham has moved today is so important. Those changes will have catastrophic effects on the wildlife that depends on those plants.

    At home, we try to set aside and maintain habitat land for birds, flora and bees. As a shooting man and a conservationist, I am very interested in that. Bumblebees are of enormous commercial importance; many arable and horticultural crops depend on bumblebees for pollination to varying degrees. Oilseed rape can set adequate seed without bumblebees, but other crops such as broad, field and runner beans and soft fruit need them. They are important for honey production and for the balance they help to maintain.

    The total value of Europe’s insect pollinators is estimated at some €14.2 billion, which cannot be ignored, because we have active organisations that produce honey. Crop yields are already falling in parts of the countryside, so it is essential that we conserve our remaining bumblebee populations and, if possible, restore them to their past abundance. That should be our target: not to retain, but to produce more. It is important that we understand how the bumblebee and the honey bee work. To support a healthy population, large tracts of land must be managed sympathetically, and UK nature reserves are too small in isolation to help as they should. There has been a collapse in the numbers of bumblebees and honey bees in the United States; some beekeepers have lost up to 90% of their population, while the bee population has fallen by 30% in other parts.

    We need to invest in our farmers and encourage them to adopt the appropriate agricultural and environmental schemes to support the replanting of hedgerows. We need to recreate the hay meadows and the flower-rich grasslands and use wild flowers and traditional cottage garden plants in gardens nationwide. We need to take action. We look to the Minister, as we often do, to take those steps to protect the bees, and consequently, our entire ecosystem and the crop system that feeds us.

  • I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) for securing the debate. The health of Britain’s bee population is of great concern to a number of my constituents, including members of Havering Friends of the Earth.

    I must declare a personal interest in the debate. It is particularly close to the heart of my father, who 10 years ago fulfilled a boyhood dream to become a beekeeper. The two hives at our family home now produce award-winning local honey, and dad has become an active member of his local beekeeping association and a minor bee celebrity with his beekeeping advice column in the local paper. On seeing the debate on the Order Paper, I fired off an email demanding that dad produce me a briefing. In the interests of transparency, I confirm that he acted as an unpaid intern in thatassignment.

    The threats to UK bees have been eloquently outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham, so I shall not repeat them. However, it is worth noting that, if our national cow herd or chicken flock were declining at as astonishing a rate as the bee population, there would likely have been emergency Government action many years ago. I very much welcome the work that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and his team are now doing to back further restrictions on the use of neonicotinoids and to continue the national pollinator strategy. However, I have a number of questions about that work that I should be grateful if the Minister answered.

    First, we are now three years into that pollinator strategy. Will the Minister advise whether he believes it is working and is adequately funded? Beekeepers want to ensure that the strategy truly deals with the major threats to bees, such as varroa mite. Local beekeeping associations do what they can to fund research into the mite, such as sponsoring PhD students.

  • I am following what my hon. Friend is saying very closely. Does she agree that another thing we need to carefully look at and do more research on, particularly as winter is approaching, is colony death in winter?

  • Absolutely. I cannot claim to be a bee expert, but I know that my dad often gets very concerned about the winter months, and I agree with what he says.

    Beekeepers feel that part of the answer when it comes to varroa mite is to have as many people keeping bees as possible, rather than treating bees with varroa-control chemicals and then allowing natural selection to produce varroa-resistant bees. We therefore need the next generation to become beekeepers, and to try to promote bees to young people. However, that can be wrapped up in bureaucracy, such as beekeepers who want to go and talk to schools requiring Criminal Records Bureau checks. What plans do the Government have to help education in schools, and is sufficient research being funded into the effects and control of varroa mite?

    Secondly, as we know, the next big threat is the use of pesticides, and I reinforce colleagues’ comments that there is no united opinion on the damage being done by these pesticides. Some beekeepers see existing scientific research as inconclusive and fear that, if these pesticides are banned, farmers may go back to using more harmful spraying chemicals. I should therefore be grateful if the Minister expanded on the Government’s current view on whether better research is required into the potential unintended consequences of the ban. Finally, the Asian hornet has been found in the UK and our Government have launched a destruction policy. Does the Minister believe that that policy is working and is properly funded?

    I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham for raising this important subject, which is central to the proper functioning of any future environmental policy. I am really excited by the energy and vivacity of the ministerial team and its desire to set out such a positive and ambitious post-Brexit environmental agenda. If we are to ensure that there is depth and credibility to that agenda, bee health must surely lie at its heart.

  • I also thank the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) for securing the debate. This is an important debate and it comes at an opportune time, as has already been said. I must declare an interest as a member of the British Beekeepers Association and as a supporter of the Bumblebee Conversation Trust.

    I say to those following the debate that there is good news: the conversion of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to the position on neonicotinoids has been important. He said that he is following the scientific evidence, and I think people applaud that. I do not want to sound as though I am giving doom and gloom following that good news, but it is set against the knowledge that pollinators in general, and honey bees in particular, are under massive pressure. Some of these things have already been discussed.

    I will return to the theme of the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez), who rightly talked about the need for more research. We know that, all over the world, honey yields, for example, are in decline—not universally, but significantly. We also know that, across the world, winter colony collapse, which was referred to by Conservative Members, is important. A lot of the evidence suggests that that happens to colonies already weakened by some of the things we have already identified. These are massively important issues.

    As we have already heard from the hon. Member for Cheltenham, the role of pollinators is fundamental to our agricultural way of life. Frankly, it is in the interests of producers—farmers—as well as those who have an interest in pollinators that we get this done together. One in every three mouthfuls of food that we have depends on pollinators, so it is fundamental to life, or at least to the way in which we do life, that we preserve our pollinators.

    Obviously, the question of pesticides is fundamental, and I can only applaud what has been said: it is important that we do not jump, to quote the hon. Member for Cheltenham, from the neonicotinoid frying pan into other destructive pesticides and the problems they may cause. I urge the Minister to recognise that there is a need for fundamental research into what really makes a difference. Pesticides can play a legitimate role—we all want to see sustainable food crops—but they have to be used with the principle of making sure that we do no harm in the way that we develop those things.

    Members have already referred to a number of other issues affecting our pollinator population, and some of those clearly lie under national control. The question of whether we use destructive pesticides is a national issue that we can move forward on, and we can begin to look at habitat loss at a national level. Those are important issues, but some of the issues are frankly more than just national issues. The varroa mite almost certainly came to Britain from Asia, almost certainly carried by beekeepers who wanted to bring in different strains of bees to improve the European and British bee strain. The hive beetle comes from Africa, and where Asian hornets migrated from is obviously self-evident. All of that indicates that we cannot protect the British pollinator population simply by pretending that we can create some kind of wall around the United Kingdom. This is not an argument about Brexit but actually about looking at what research can do.

    We need to make sure that we now establish a research framework that is radically different from that which has existed in the past. The amount of money spent on research into pollinators is trivial, frankly, compared with the amount of money we spend as a nation and a world on research into other areas of agricultural production. That has to change if we are to recognise the central importance of pollinators. It is not only the flowers and the fruits that depend on our pollinators; it is cucumbers, cauliflowers, cabbages and many of the things we take for granted.

    I urge the Minister to recognise that need for fundamental research. That would obviously be a UK thing, but we need to work with those around the world, because whether it is the United States, Australia, the rest of Europe or other parts of the world, the issues of colony collapse, colony decline, the decline of honey and the decline of pollinators more generally are held in common. Research is easy to call for, but we need practical application, with the scientific integrity the Secretary of State has fortunately followed in the case of neonicotinoids, so that we can begin to resolve the other issues that weaken our pollinator population.

  • I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) for securing this important debate. He is the vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for bees, which I am very proud to chair. We came together to set the group up because one of the surprises on being new entrants here in 2015 was that we received more correspondence from constituents on bees and pollinators than perhaps any other political issue. It is fair to say that Brexit has now somewhat overtaken that, but that struck a chord. This is an incredibly important issue for our constituents and people across the country, and it is one that Parliament could do more on.

    Politicians can talk a good game, but I have walked around this estate with ecologists from Kew, and a cursory glance shows that Parliament is an appalling place for bees and pollinators to thrive and survive in. One of our aims is to host a colony of bees on site and to try to turn some of this bare concrete barren land into a more natural habitat for bees. We would then not only talk a good game about the importance of bees and pollinators but demonstrate to our constituents when they visit that this is a place where pollinators can thrive.

    That is particularly important, because we have seen in the last 20 years a 54% decline in the honey bee population. We should look beyond honey bees and, indeed, bees. We have also seen since the 1960s a 62% decline in the moth population. We know that pollinators are more prevalent on the non-bee side than the bee side. Without wishing to widen the debate too far, we should look at pollinators as a whole, not just bees and honey bees.

    I am particularly grateful that the Government have listened to the science when it comes to neonicotinoids. The APPG for bees had taken quite a nuanced position, similar to the British Beekeepers Association. I think many people are excited by the advent of neonicotinoids, which mean that rather than having to spray seven times a year during the season when pollinators are most active, there is the opportunity to coat a seed. However, the science has been out; it seems to suggest that neonicotinoids have an impact on the productive system and nerve cells of bees as well as the flea beetle larvae that they were brought in to repel. The issue was that the lab-based studies were not particularly conclusive with regard to absolutely ensuring they reflected what was going on in the field.

    Things changed over the summer. The two scientific studies to which my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham referred—one from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology focusing on the UK, Germany and Hungary, and the other a Canadian study—demonstrated that there were issues with respect to survival over winter and reproduction of bees. Again, we must look at the science. It was incredibly interesting that the UK colonies were largely being wiped out, but in Germany, there was no impact at all.

    We should be very careful not to be complacent with this welcome change. I agree with the Government; the science now shows that neonicotinoids do have an impact, and there should therefore be further controls. I welcome the controls being brought in by the Government. However, in Germany, the habitat is much richer than in the UK. This is where I suggest we focus our next set of impactful tasks. Modern farming, the varroa mite, the wax moth, global warming, food fashions, habitat loss—particularly with regard to hedgerows—and the rush of beekeepers, for which I blame myself, mean that we have a much wider expanse of areas we need to look at. I welcome the Government’s change of approach—indeed, the APPG will be changing its approach, because we also agree with the latest science—but I ask them not to consider this as job done.

    I gave statistics from the ’60s and from 20 years ago, but that was before neonicotinoids were brought in. The population of bees and pollinators has been declining because of not just neonicotinoids but the other issues I brought forth. I would like to see the Government focus more on those areas.

    I maintain that farming in particular has grown more towards embracing the environment, and incentives for farmers in terms of production are based on that.

  • I am very much enjoying my hon. Friend’s speech, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) for securing the debate. I too have had more emails about this subject than anything, bar Heathrow and Brexit.

    In the light of the comments my hon. Friend just made about the changing nature of agriculture in our country, does he share my concern about the behaviour of the National Farmers Union? It continues to trash the science in relation to the decline in pollinators, which has become incredibly clear, and also to scaremonger about the impacts of this ban in terms of yields, despite the fact that farmers have seen record yields over the last three years, when the ban has been in place across Europe. Does he share my concern that the NFU, which exists to speak for farmers, seems more inclined nowadays to speak for vested interests—for the pesticide firms and for agribusiness—and not for the farmers that it exists to defend?

  • My hon. Friend makes a key point. I would perhaps use the APPG’s position change to advocate that the NFU comes with us.

    Friends of the Earth was most annoyed, quite frankly, that the APPG was not tending absolutely to the view that neonicotinoids are bad and should be banned conclusively. Our view was that we should wait for field-based research to conclusively show that that is the case. I believe that such field-based research has now come through with these two studies, and therefore it behoves the NFU to take the same approach. As has been pointed out, the farming industry is worth £100 billion. Farmers should embrace the need to protect pollinators, because they effectively are the start of production. It is time the NFU came with us.

    It is also right that we continue to follow science and see if there is any scientific evolution with regard to neonics to fix the bad impacts that currently exist. We should never close the door to that, but it behoves the NFU to get behind the latest viewpoint and move forward. That would delight Friends of the Earth.

    I should also say, in the 20 seconds remaining, that I am the champion for one of the solitary bees that is alive and well in Gatwick. I am not sure that that will further the cause of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park in terms of which airport should be expanded, but I am sure that bee will continue to survive in Gatwick.

    I welcome the Government’s change of approach, and the APPG is very much with the Government’s change of direction.

  • We now come to the first of the Front-Bench speeches. I call John Mc Nally for the Scottish National party.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) for securing this debate on the importance of bees and other pollinators. I learned today that he has an impressive knowledge of the subject and a keen awareness of how important bees are. I compliment him on his genuine interest and wide personal understanding of the importance of pollinators and the waggle signal, which certainly will require further investigation by me; I have no idea what he was talking about, so I will have a look at that.

    The National Bee Unit has identified the Asian hornet as a serious threat—a point well made by Government Members. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) made an excellent point on replacements for pesticides, which have to be stringently tested for the safety of our pollinators. I agree with most of the concerns raised. Likewise, I have received many emails from people who are concerned about the threat to our bee population. Contributions today have been excellent, and I hope mine is up to the standard of other Members.

    At least 1,500 species of pollinator insects live in the UK, including more than 250 species of bee. It is estimated that those pollinators add between £430 million and £603 million per year to the value of UK food crops, making an essential contribution to our food industry. Without doubt, they are essential for the survival of wild plants and natural ecosystems.

    The health and strength of individual colonies has declined, making them more susceptible to disease and environmental pressures. It appears that overall, populations of wild pollinators have been in decline for the last 50 years. The generalist species, of bumblebees and solitary bees—those that can feed on a wide variety of plants—are thought to be maintaining their numbers and distribution, but the specialist species, which depend on specific plant species or nesting conditions, are thought to have declined and, in turn, populations of plant species that rely on specialist pollinator species have declined.

    What are the threats to our pollinators? There seems to be no single factor responsible for pollinator decline. Instead, research points to its being driven by a combination of different pressures—mainly habitat loss, disease, climate change and pesticides—but how the effects of those pressures interact and how they affect individual bee species is poorly understood.

    Pollinators, especially bees, rely on their ability to remember and navigate between nest sites and food sources to survive, so anything that disrupts those cognitive functions, whether pesticide exposure, disease or malnutrition, has survival implications. In relation to habitat loss, changes in land use and agricultural practices have reduced the abundance of both flower-rich habitat and nesting sites. Recent research in Germany and England suggests that the abundance of flower-rich habitat on agricultural land is now so poor that pollinators are surviving better in urban areas than rural ones.

    However, pests and diseases are the foremost threat to managed bees. The Varroa mite is the world’s most devastating bee parasite. If a honey bee were the size of a human, a Varroa mite would be the size of a dinner plate. Even a single mite feeding on a bee’s blood is a significant drain on its health. However, it is the diseases carried by the mite that kill bee colonies.

    Climate change is changing weather patterns and the flowering times and geographical distribution of pollinator food plants. Although devastating for some species, climate change is allowing others to extend their range. However, extreme weather events threatening colonies and their food sources are becoming more likely than ever. Wetter, more changeable weather in the spring and early summer limits population sizes and increases the risk of starvation.

    The news that the Secretary of State intends to ban neonicotinoids should be welcomed, but this Opposition will be watching the implementation closely. If it is not an all-encompassing ban on this pesticide class, the danger is that users will merely switch to other neonicotinoids. The Government have argued in the past that the precautionary principle should be applied to economic risks alongside environmental ones. We totally agree with that.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) on initiating the debate, in which we have heard excellent contributions. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) for bringing his serious expertise to the debate; it is much appreciated.

    We have heard that scientific evidence about the harmful impact on pollinators and the persistence of the pesticide in habitats has been growing for some time. In 2012, DEFRA said that England had seen the greatest decline in the diversity of wild bees anywhere in Europe. We have also heard that, in June, the results of the field study on the impact of neonicotinoids were published and that that has provided the most conclusive evidence yet of the impact of neonicotinoids on pollinators. We know that farmers had concerns that decisions were being based on lab tests rather than field tests, so it is good that the recent studies were field tests and have put that argument and those concerns to rest.

    We also know that when neonicotinoids are used on one crop, residues of the pesticide can be found right across the wider habitat. That contaminates pollinators’ food sources and not only the specific crops where the neonicotinoids are used. Wider investigations have shown that neonicotinoids can persist in soil for many years. The pesticide is taken up by flowering weeds or flowering crops, which can cause even more damaging exposure for the pollinators.

    I therefore welcome the Secretary of State’s support, now, for a total ban on the use of neonicotinoids. A ban was in the Labour party’s 2017 manifesto, and we are proud to have led the way on this critical issue. Earlier this year, I wrote to the Secretary of State requesting clarification as to why Conservative MEPs were frustrating votes at EU level on a ban on neonicotinoids. Can the Minister provide a guarantee that the position announced by the Secretary of State is confirmed and that Conservative representatives at EU level will now hold that position and not undermine any further votes on neonicotinoids?

    It is clear from this debate that we are all in no doubt about the importance of pollinators to our food supply, biodiversity and economy. We need to do more to encourage people to take up beekeeping and to have more interest in that. We have bees on our land. They are not ours; we do not look after them, but because we have the land and the right conditions, we have encouraged others, who have the time and the interest, to come and look after hives on our land. We could all encourage more of that.

    We could also encourage local authorities to do more work. In Plymouth, the then Labour council introduced city-wide bee corridors. That simple act has helped bee numbers to increase in the city. It involved sowing grass verges with wild flower seeds. The different British wild flowers produce fabulous roadside views for people who go down there, but also the habitat that bees need. That is an example of the creative interventions that local authorities can make.

    Over the weekend, the Secretary of State highlighted the economic contribution of pollinators, citing estimates of £400 million to £680 million being added every year to agricultural productivity. However, we need to take into full consideration the importance of pesticides for farmers. Farmers have to protect their crops and livelihoods from threats throughout the growing season. How do the Government propose to work with farmers to develop and invest in alternatives to neonicotinoids? We know that it is not just pesticides that pose a risk to pollinator populations, but temperature changes and increased extreme weather incidents caused by climate change. I am therefore delighted that the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer has today announced Labour’s intention to factor climate change into financial forecasts and policy making. That should enhance the future sustainability of farming and safeguard future pollinator populations.

    I would like to finish with a quote from Professor David Goulson of the University of Sussex:

    “Insects make up about two-thirds of all life on Earth”,

    but

    “there has been some kind of horrific decline. We appear to be making vast tracts of land inhospitable to most forms of life, and are currently on course for ecological Armageddon. If we lose the insects…everything is going to collapse.”

    The case for a permanent ban is now unassailable, and I welcome the developing political consensus on the matter.

  • I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) on securing this debate on such an important issue. I also commend the work that he does in the APPG on bees. He gave a very uplifting speech. As he said, we Conservatives believe in conservation; we want to leave an environmental legacy, and our pollinators are incredibly important to our environment.

    Often in debates on this issue there is a focus on pesticides, but as a number of hon. Members—in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman)—have pointed out, a big role is played by loss of habitat. In fact, a lot of analysis suggests that loss of habitat has been the key driver of the decline in our pollinators. As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, declines have taken place since the 1950s—long before neonicotinoids were invented.

    There is no doubt that our bees face many pressures. However, the population data are complex. Many species of wild bee and other insect pollinators have declined over the last 30 to 50 years. A few have increased, but the net effect has clearly been negative. Three of our native bumblebees have been lost from the UK—the apple bumblebee in the 1800s, Cullum’s bumblebee in the 1940s and the short-haired bumblebee in the 1980s. On a positive note, that last species is currently being reintroduced to Kent and has become a real focus for conservation and land management action.

    Similarly, there has been a decline in the number of honey bees kept since the 1950s. Again, however, there has been better news more recently. I am referring to the renewed interest in beekeeping over the last decade, with membership of beekeeping associations and the number of registered colonies on the rise. The number of colonies registered with the National Bee Unit increased from just over 100,000 in 2009 to 195,000 this year. Often, those are amateur keepers with a couple of hives in their garden. My hon. Friend called for Parliament to have some beehives. DEFRA is already doing its bit: we have two beehives on the roof of our building—Nobel House in Smith Square.

    Nevertheless, we should not be complacent. Wild and honey bees continue to face many challenges and we must maintain our efforts to help all our pollinators. The area of wildflower habitat on farmland, as well as the presence of clover leys in our rotations, declined substantially after the second world war, as farmers responded to our need for food. Many of the insect pollinators that have seen the greatest declines are those that are strongly associated with these habitats. On our protected sites and through countryside stewardship, we are putting these habitats back into the countryside and I am keen that we continue to do this as we develop our new environmental land management measures outside the European Union.

    I turn now to the action the Government have taken in relation to this matter, first, our national pollinator strategy, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) highlighted. This strategy sets out how the Government are taking a leading role in improving the status of the 1,500 pollinating insects in England. It sets out how Government, beekeepers, conservation groups, farmers, researchers and individuals can work together to achieve common goals. It builds on current policies across DEFRA, which support pollinators, including habitat creation and public engagement.

    On 9 November we published a progress report detailing the positive progress we have made. I am pleased to report that this included the valuable creation of new habitats for pollinators and improvements in our understanding of the status of pollinating insects. We have supported the reintroduction of species such as the short-haired bumblebee, whose conservation we know to have additional benefits for other species. Over 95% of our sites of special scientific interest and almost two thirds of the total area of our resource of wildlife-rich habitats are now in good condition or have management plans in place to restore them to it.

    Secondly, I want to consider farm measures. We have introduced a pollinator and wildlife package to our countryside stewardship scheme, to help landowners provide year-round habitat such as flower-rich field margins. Since 2011, we have established more than 100,000 hectares of land that we are restoring to flower-rich habitat, principally through those agri-environment schemes. Forty per cent. of all 2016 countryside stewardship mid-tier agreements are delivering the pollinator and farm wildlife package. Last year, countryside stewardship applications increased by almost 45% and requests for mid-tier application packs are up this year. We have worked with farmers to make it easier and simpler to apply for the scheme and will continue working to improve it and make it simpler as we go forward.

    Thirdly, on the Government estates, the Ministry of Justice planted over two miles of native hedgerows and created over 20 hectares of wildflower meadows in 2016. The Ministry of Defence has collaborated with organisations such as Plantlife, National Parks, the Wildlife Trusts and its own tenant farmers to set up suitable areas for pollinators to thrive, including through the creation of wildflower meadows.

    Fourthly, in addition to supporting our pollinators with habitat creation, we have put in place measures to improve our understanding of the status of pollinators in our environment. We have established a monitoring and research partnership with research institutions and volunteer organisations. This partnership will allow us to gather further data on the status of our pollinators and the challenges they face.

  • I do not want to introduce a disagreeable note, but if the Minister compares, for example, the amount of money we have spent, under all Governments, as a nation, on issues such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy or bovine TB, with the amount of money we spend, or do not spend, on research into protecting our pollinators, what can we look forward to from this Government to significantly increase those research efforts?

  • First, I mentioned the countryside stewardship schemes. That is a £3 billion programme going to those environmental stewardship schemes during the course of the financial perspective that the EU looks at. That is a large amount of money, and, as I said, a lot of that is focused on those pollinator packages. Specifically on research, we have supported the Insect Pollinator Initiative, that is a £10 million research programme, which still produces high quality science papers that help us to understand the importance of pollinator populations to UK agriculture.

    Awareness raising is also important, as several hon. Members pointed out. It is a key feature of our national pollinator strategy. We have established a “Bees’ Needs” campaign, including public events, talks, best practice advice and award ceremonies to demonstrate and acknowledge people’s work to provide suitable habitat for bees and other insects. This year, my noble Friend Lord Gardiner presented 17 awards to individuals and groups who have shown best practice in all areas of pollinator work. Winners included honey-bee keepers, community groups, farmers and schools.

    As a number of hon. Members pointed out, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster, we also have to address the effect of pests and disease on our pollinators. As part of our support for pollinators, we continue to protect our honey bees through the healthy bees plan and the work of the National Bee Unit. Our team of bee inspectors visited over 6,000 beehives last year, looking for harmful pests and diseases. It is through the hard work of our inspectors that endemic diseases such as the foulbroods remain at low levels. They provide advice on good husbandry practices to thousands of beekeepers to help them manage other important pests like varroa. It is pleasing to observe the collaboration between beekeepers and the National Bee Unit. Registration of beekeepers on the National Bee Unit’s voluntary database is on the rise. It has gone up from 20,000 in 2009 to over 40,000 today. To support these beekeepers, we continue to aspire to educate and improve husbandry standards right across the country. This year, the National Bee Unit provided talks at 190 beekeeping events reaching some 9,000 beekeepers.

    I want to mention the Asian hornet. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) highlighted this in an intervention. The training we have done has been of great value in detecting the Asian hornet. In 2016, we witnessed their arrival in the UK in an outbreak in Gloucestershire and Somerset. We also, as he pointed out, saw a separate outbreak in Devon earlier this year. Both incidents were reported by beekeepers and, through the sterling efforts of the Animal and Plant Health Agency, both nests were destroyed and no further hornets have been seen.

    I want to turn finally to the issue of pesticides. As several hon. Members acknowledged, last week we announced our support in principle for further restrictions on neonicotinoid pesticides. There has been additional evidence in the last two years that they are harmful to bees and other pollinators. We have always been clear that we will follow the science on these matters. The advice from the UK Government’s advisory body, the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides, is that the evidence now suggests that the environmental risks posed by neonicotinoids—particularly to our bees and pollinators—are probably greater than previously understood.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham said that we were initially sceptical in 2013, as a Government, about the initial restrictions that were brought in. That is correct. Our chief scientific adviser’s advice at that point was that he did not believe the doses bees were likely to get would be a problem, but he was always clear that there should be further field trials. The first of those field trials was carried out in Sweden by Rundlof and others, and that concluded that there could be some impacts, particularly on bumblebees, and on that basis we moved to supporting the existing restrictions. However, in the light of subsequent, more recent proposals from the Commission, we asked the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides for its view. In particular, it looked at some evidence from Woodcock and others that concluded that there may be a persistence of neonicotinoids in soils, and that that may therefore have wider effects beyond the immediate impact on pollinators. As a precaution, we have decided to act on that. The committee was clear in its recent advice, which we have published, that the evidence is not that clear at the moment, but it is, it believes, reason to extend the restrictions further and that is why we have taken our current position.

    Many hon. Members have talked about some of the unintended consequences and we must be mindful of those. There will more use of pyrethroids—greater use of those applications—which can also have environmental impacts and lead to growing resistance to the dwindling number of synthetic pesticides that we have left. It is also the case that we have seen an increase in the use of neonicotinoids in winter cereals, partly because other products, such as pirimicarb, were withdrawn from the market. This is a complex area. In the long term, we need to look at integrated pest management, with a wider range of approaches to tackle crop protection.

  • This has been an excellent debate. From Strangford in Northern Ireland, to Falkirk in Scotland and to Bexhill and Battle in the south of England, I think there has been a joint position across this House. Everyone has spoken with authority and eloquence. There are three key points I wish to draw out. First, bees and pollinators are not just nice to have, but a vital part of our food chain. Secondly, science and nothing else must underpin our approach to the environment. Thirdly, if we maintain the interest and energy that has been shown here today, I am convinced that the tide can be turned and the future for our bees can be bright.

  • Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).