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Bee Health

Volume 560: debated on Tuesday 26 March 2013

It is a great honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. This year’s Budget quite rightly supports those people who are working hard and contributing to our economy. Life is tough for many hard-working people, and we are doing all we can to support them. Particular focus has been directed at people investing in British businesses and employing more people. The national growth strategy has identified sectors of our economy that are strong, that are growing and that have the opportunity to generate increased wealth for our nation by making more things and exporting them overseas. In the next 10 minutes or so, I would like the Minister to think about another army of workers that needs our support right now—Britain’s bees.

Agribusinesses, farmers, and food and drinks manufacturers are quite rightly identified as significant contributors to our economy and to our future prosperity. In my constituency, this sector is helping to lead the way towards sustainable, export-driven growth. Food, drink and farming businesses employ nearly a third of working people across Cornwall. Local products include the iconic pasty, the native oyster, wine, cider, beer, soft fruit and vegetables, and even tea, which is grown at Tregothnan and exported to China.

Nationally, the agri-food and drink sector contributes £85 billion a year to the UK economy and provides employment for 3.5 million people. Without a strong work force of bees, we will not be able to realise the potential of this sector in the coming years. Nearly all the drinks and food that I have mentioned need bees as pollinators. Bees deliver that service better than anything else in our ecosystem. It is estimated that manual pollination, which is the only option if a catastrophic decline in bee numbers takes place, would cost British farmers up to £1.8 billion every year. Don’t get me wrong—like all wildlife, the bee population is important in its own right, and as part of a balanced ecosystem, which is vital for our health and well-being. However, as we are so rightly focused at the moment in Parliament on the economy, the focus of my speech is on the economic benefits of bee health.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has done much to try to understand why the bee population in Britain, the EU and the USA is declining. In the UK alone, the number of managed honey bee colonies fell by 53% between 1985 and 2005. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs understands that pollinators, including bees, are essential to the health of our natural environment and to the prosperity of our farming industry. DEFRA has estimated that pollination is worth several hundred million pounds every year. Also, bees are among our greatest allies in delivering DEFRA’s twin priorities of animal health and plant health. The Department is implementing the healthy bees plan, working with beekeepers to provide training and respond to pest and disease threats. Within that plan, DEFRA’s national bee unit provides inspection, diagnostic and training services to beekeepers. Before I entered Parliament, I was a trainee beekeeper, and I very much appreciated the helpful advice of those helping me to learn the craft, particularly inspectors.

Work under the “Biodiversity 2020” banner is delivering more and improved habitats for bees and other pollinators. A further bee-supporting project is the entry-level stewardship scheme for farmers, which promotes the growth of beneficial plants for bees and pollinators. Natural England is working hard with farmers to help them to identify areas of land to provide these habitats, and £10 million has been allocated to a range of research projects that will help bees and pollinators.

Taken as a whole, these measures represent a lot of different activities that are focused on trying to understand why bees are declining, and on taking action to reverse that trend. Most recently, DEFRA has been involved at the EU level in considering the restriction of some chemicals that are used mostly by our cereal crop farmers as pesticides. Just last week, the chief scientific adviser told the Select Committee on Science and Technology, of which I am a member, that he did not feel that there was sufficient evidence to ban the chemicals that are under consideration, but that we should keep the decision under review while awaiting more scientific evidence. He also said that we need to bear in mind the impact of withdrawing the chemicals in the pesticides, including the impact that would have on food prices, especially the prices of winter wheat and rape.

I will be brief. My constituent Hugh Sykes, who is the chairman of the Winchester and District Beekeepers Association, and whom I have met many times, has been in touch with me—along with hundreds of other constituents—on this subject, and he contacted me specifically about the recent vote on the issue in Europe. Does my hon. Friend know why our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs abstained on that vote? Also, although I appreciate what she is saying, does she not agree that until the science is proven on this particular pesticide—the Secretary of State said that he was a sceptic on the subject of this particular pesticide, as are many people—we should perhaps hold back from using it, given that there is clearly something greatly affecting the bee populations in our constituencies?

Like my hon. Friend, I have been contacted by many hundreds of constituents on this issue—I am sure that all MPs have—because many of our constituents take such a close interest in our environment and care for it, which is to be welcomed as it is a really good thing. There has been some excellent campaigning work done by, for example, Friends of the Earth.

As far as I understand from my correspondence with the Secretary of State, the reason for the abstention, which was backed up by the chief scientific adviser, is that the evidence is not clear as to how harmful some of these chemicals are. DEFRA operates on the precautionary principle when making decisions. It has agreed to ensure that the research in this area is kept open and continues, and it has also agreed that if any harmful impact is detected, it will, of course, act. I hope that my hon. Friend, when he has listened to more of what I have to say, will understand that I think we need a more holistic approach to how we are handling this problem. Much as I would love to think that there is one silver bullet, there probably is not, and we need to consider all the different contributing factors that have been leading, undeniably, to bee decline.

I return to the impact of reducing the use of these pesticides. Reducing their use would also reduce the quantity of crops, and that could have a detrimental effect on the bee population because it would reduce some of the bees’ foraging habitat, as well as reducing biodiversity.

Bees have been in decline for some time, as I am sure the beekeepers with whom my hon. Friend is in regular contact have been telling him. We have been hoping to discover a single reason, such as a disease that was causing the collapse of colonies and that could be cured, or one particular chemical that could be identified and banned. However, I think we have come to realise that there will not be a single solution, and that this is a complex problem.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter to the House. I can well remember those halcyon days of the late 1960s and early 1970s when I was a young boy down in Clady outside Strabane. In those days, the sun shone regularly; it does not seem to shine as much now. Does she feel that the change in weather conditions is one of the factors contributing to the decline of bee numbers across the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland? The reason I well recall that time in Clady as a young boy is that bees’ honeycombs were something that we prized zealously and refused to share with anyone. I am hoping that those days will return and that the bees can come back, because they are important for the countryside. There were bog meadows and open land, and there was not the same agricultural intensification that there is now. Does she feel that those things are also important factors, and that perhaps we need to see more land set aside?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. I know, for example, that last year beekeepers in Cornwall, like beekeepers all over the country, had to feed their bees in the hives because of the appalling weather. Where we have bees in managed colonies, that is fine, but the wild bees and solitary bees are not receiving that sort of care and attention, and they will be even worse affected by the weather. Without those beekeepers feeding the bees in their hives, we would have seen an even greater loss of bee numbers. Look at the weather outside today. Lots of flowers are blossoming, which the bees would naturally be pollinating, but what with the freezing temperatures and the winds, the bees will, rightly, be huddled up in their hives, relying on beekeepers to feed them until the wind drops and temperatures rise, so that they can venture outside. Undoubtedly, climate change will be having an impact on bees. When I talk about research, I shall mention that as one factor contributing to what is happening to all the bee colonies.

The hon. Gentleman rightly identifies that these are complex problems and only a range of activities can resolve them. We need a holistic approach, looking at the many contributing factors in a joined-up strategy, led by DEFRA and involving other Departments. I am asking the Minister to ask the Secretary of State to consider implementing a British bee strategy that would work across Departments and with stakeholders to develop a holistic action plan, with identifiable outcomes and budget allocations.

Parliament rightly demands evidence-based policy making, so let us start with the science. The Government have committed large sums to the science budget. An annual research spend of £4.6 billion has been ring-fenced in the 2010 comprehensive spending review, with additional investment of £1.3 billion in research budgets over the next three years. The UK has world-class universities of which we are rightly proud, and the science and innovation that they generate are a potential source of prosperity, as scientific discoveries are commercialised by businesses working with universities, creating beneficial products and services.

In addition to the DEFRA budget allocated for bee and pollinator research, I should like to see the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills working with the major research councils to identify a pot of money from the existing, and recently increased, funding for science. This could be used to commission university-based scientists, working in partnership with industry, to create a new generation of pesticides and fungicides that have less harmful effects to pollinators; to develop disease-resistant seeds to prevent the need for chemical treatment; and to explore different methods of crop husbandry to prevent the use of harmful pesticides and chemicals in the environment. All these have the potential to improve bee health, and are areas of science in which we already have a great deal of expertise.

It is important to recognise that the UK’s crop-protection sector has a vital role to play, but as with any market, it can work well to deliver innovation and quality. It is worth remembering that in the UK a pesticide is released on to the market only after an average of nine years’ extensive research. However, as recent news about antibiotics has shown, sometimes Government intervention is needed. The chief medical officer has recently warned that, because antibiotics are relatively cheap and not very profitable to pharmaceutical companies, they have made little investment in innovation. As a result, we face humans becoming immune to current antibiotics within the next 20 years—a risk to our well-being greater than climate change. The chief medical officer has called on the Government to use some of the money earmarked for investment in science to discover the next generation of antibiotics. She has also highlighted the need for international collaboration on the management of antibiotics. We need to think in the same way to tackle declining bee health.

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend’s suggestion about creating a British bee strategy; that is vital. She makes the case powerfully for a strong, healthy bee population to ensure pollination in agriculture and biodiversity in our environment. Does she agree that it is important for a focus to be maintained across Government, and to bring together all the different resources from Departments to try to tackle and reverse this decline in bee numbers?

That is important. As I said, DEFRA has done a huge amount, and this Government should be proud of their track record in tackling the issue, but we need to step it up with more urgency and draw on all the resources of Government, not just on DEFRA. DEFRA is quite a low-spending Department, and it needs the extra sums that are available, particularly in BIS, for science and innovation, so that it can bring those extra resources to bear. DEFRA has done well to be still investing in bee research, having had to make cuts in expenditure—it is to be commended for that—but the scale of the challenge is so great that we should be reaching out to BIS and other pots of science money and commissioning research. Not only would that be beneficial for our bee population, agriculture, farming and the environment, but once these products are developed they could be exported and could generate a great deal of wealth in our country.

All this takes time. Root-cause research would take years—pesticides can take nine years to come to market—so there are things we need to do in the interim. We should listen closely to the calls of Friends of the Earth, which put together a national bee action plan, with some sensible steps that could be taken. I should like the Government to consider that.

We could create bee worlds by encouraging local authorities and the farming sector to work together to increase the availability of good feeding and nesting sites for bees. The mayor of Truro, Lindsay Southcombe, is using her year as mayor to highlight what we can do locally. We can do lots of things at a local level. We need to protect existing sites, conserving the lowland and upland meadows where bees thrive. We should ensure that science-based advice and guidance is provided to farmers and other bodies, setting out how those habitats can be better protected. This advice can be provided only if adequate expertise on bees is retained within Government agencies. For successful delivery of habitat creation and restoration for bees locally, we must ensure that that expertise is available at all levels in local authorities. We do have the bee inspectorate, and that must be preserved, but it must also be built on.

Finally, we need to consider commissioning research on new pest-control technologies and drawing on global best practice, with the aim of developing pest-control methods that maintain farming yields while minimising the impact on pollinator populations. That is the clear call of Friends of the Earth, which believes that stakeholders can be brought together and can help develop best practice, working alongside the Government, that can then be rolled out across the UK.

The evidence that bee populations are declining is clear. We have talked about that in respect of honey bees, but it also applies to wild bees and solitary bees. If we stand by and allow this decline to carry on, it would hit key sectors of our economy hard. The Government’s investment in a range of activities and research aimed at slowing this decline, and better understanding it, is to be welcomed. Now is the time to move to the next stage: to put together a holistic cross-departmental strategy aimed at developing new biodiversity-friendly approaches to crop protection that the rest of the world will welcome. Now is the time to show British bees, British farmers and the British food and drink producers that we are on their side, and will work with them to tackle this significant problem for our health, our well-being and our environment.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) not only on securing a debate on an important subject, but on the balanced way that she presented her arguments.

A healthy bee population is crucial not only to agriculture, but to the environment and the economy, so we have to get this right. I have a record of raising these issues when in opposition: some five or six years ago, I was one of those who was pressing strongly for a proper approach to bee health and for the then Government to invest in it. It is therefore a particular pleasure for me to respond to this debate on behalf of my noble friend Lord De Mauley, whose responsibility it is, and to highlight what we have been doing to improve bee health, and our future plans.

Over the past five years there has been a welcome resurgence in interest in keeping bees. Many new beekeepers have turned to local and national beekeeping associations for information and support on how best to look after the pollinator species. The British Beekeepers Association, for example, reports that its membership has increased from some 16,500 in 2009 to 25,000 in 2013. The Government are playing their part in supporting and maintaining that growth in interest. The main focus of our efforts to protect bee health is through the work of the national bee unit, which is acknowledged as having one of the best bee health surveillance programmes in Europe.

It might be helpful if I quickly set out what the national bee unit does. First, it has an inspection and enforcement role: the unit has a team of some 60 professional bee inspectors out in the field controlling notifiable diseases and surveying for exotic pests. Thanks to their work and the results of the random apiary survey, which is internationally probably one of the biggest bee health surveys of its kind ever undertaken, we now have a detailed understanding of the health status of the nation’s bees and can use that information to target our inspection programmes to best effect. I am pleased to report that the incidence of the two notifiable diseases—European and American foul brood—remains nationally low, with infection rates around half those observed during the 1990s. Also, most importantly, no evidence has been found of exotic pests, such as the small hive beetle, and the pests remain absent from the UK.

Secondly, the national bee unit and its inspectors provide advice and support to beekeepers on pests and diseases, with emphasis on varroa management, during their inspection visits, or through training and education programmes jointly run with beekeeping associations. Last year, the unit took part in nearly 500 training events attended by more than 22,000 beekeepers. Guidance is also provided online: the unit’s website, BeeBase, provides a wide range of information for beekeepers to help keep their honey bees healthy and productive. I am pleased to report that the number of beekeepers registered on BeeBase has increased from some 12,000 in 2006 to more than 29,000 today. All those services are provided by the inspectors without charge.

Protecting bee health is not something the Government can achieve by themselves, nor should it be. The various challenges and threats can be properly addressed only through effective partnership working. The Government are co-funding a range of beekeeping association-led initiatives that are already beginning to deliver improvements with, for example, 400 new beekeeper trainers being trained and a suite of new training materials and courses already available. One of those programmes is the development of an apprenticeship scheme to encourage young people to become bee farmers, and we are working with the Bee Farmers’ Association to develop the programme further.

That is the context of what we are doing, but I know my hon. Friend and many of our constituents are worried about the perceived threat from the neonicotinoids. I take that threat extremely seriously. We must take any threat to bees and pollinators seriously, and we have kept the evidence on neonicotinoids under open-minded scrutiny. We have consistently made it clear that we will restrict the use of such products if the evidence shows the need. That is the crucial point for us at the moment as a Department that works on the basis of evidence. Although the potential for toxic effects has been shown, Government scientists and the independent Advisory Committee on Pesticides last year advised that the evidence then available did not indicate harmful exposure in the field. The field evidence is limited, however, and focused on honey bees, so we commissioned research on the field effects of neonicotinoids on bumble bees. That work has just been completed and the results are positive, although not conclusive. In particular, the researchers found no relationship between colony growth and neonicotinoid residues in pollen or nectar in the colonies.

Following completion of the study, DEFRA has drawn up a short assessment of all the key current evidence, which I have arranged to be placed in the Library— hon. Members might like to look at it. The assessment cannot exclude rare effects of neonicotinoids on bees in the field, but suggests that those effects do not occur in normal circumstances. We are also analysing the implications for the environment and for agriculture of possible restrictions on neonicotinoids. If neonicotinoids were not available, farmers would switch to alternative insecticides that remain legally available, and it is important to understand the implications of that.

The European Commission proposed significant restrictions on neonicotinoids, which, as my hon. Friend mentioned, was put to a vote on 15 March. The United Kingdom abstained. I underline that we did not take that step because we have closed our mind to taking action; we abstained because the Commission’s proposal was not well thought through. We have urged the Commission to complete the scientific assessment, taking account of our new research. We have also emphasised the need to assess the impacts of action, so that the measures taken are proportionate to the risks. We will continue to make that case in Europe.

The difference between the laboratory tests on which much of the information is based and the field trials that we have now undertaken is that the dosage levels are not comparable. The dosage in the field is much lower than that used in the laboratory experiments, so the toxicity might not be demonstrable or replicable in field conditions. We need to investigate that important aspect further.

A number of European countries certainly believe that the evidence justifies a moratorium—we know that from the vote. The Minister’s Department also believes that there are risks, although it is not convinced that the risks are high enough to justify a moratorium. Would he, as a secondary step, or perhaps as a compromise, consider doing what many have recommended, which is introducing a moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids for non-farm applications, such as golf courses, private gardens, urban areas and so on? That might help the scientific process and the journey that DEFRA is currently on.

We will consider the effectiveness of all propositions that are on the table. My concern about agricultural use is that we need to assess carefully the environmental consequences, including the consequences for bee health, of using other substances, such as pyrethroids and organophosphates, as an alternative. I will certainly consider what my hon. Friend has to say.

We have joined some of the UK’s major research funders to fund projects aimed at researching the causes and consequences of threats to insect pollinators, including honey bees. Understanding the threats will help us to identify the best possible action to support those species for the future. That is the key, given the role of pollinators in agricultural production, estimated to be worth more than £500 million, and in our overall food security. The initiative’s total spend is up to £10 million over five years, to which DEFRA has contributed £2.5 million. We look forward to seeing the results of those studies over the next two years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth mentioned that there are other stress factors, and she is absolutely right. The other stress factors include weather—the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—pest infestations or infections, nutrition and hive management. We need to consider all those factors in the round. She also mentioned the key importance of having a bee strategy, and emphasised that pollination is more than just about the role of honey bees. Lord de Mauley has announced that he is considering exactly what she suggests—the development of a more holistic health strategy to cover all pollinators—and he has been meeting interested parties, such as Friends of the Earth, to explore what added value that approach might bring.

I end by stressing to hon. Members that the Government are committed to continue playing their part, working in partnership with beekeepers and other interested parties, to sustain the health of honey bees and other key pollinators. This is an extraordinarily important subject, and I and my noble Friend Lord de Mauley are determined to get it right. We must do so by considering all the consequences and taking action as seems appropriate on the basis of the evidence. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for introducing the debate.