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Bee Stocks: Winter Losses

Volume 475: debated on Thursday 5 June 1986

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3.18 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what was the effect of the hard winter on the British bee stock, particularly in the North of England.

My Lords, preliminary reports show losses averaging some 40–50 per cent. in England as a whole but there are regional variations. Losses were highest in the North of England averaging 50–60 per cent. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is continuing to monitor the position.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Have the Government any plans to aid the recovery of the national beehive? Secondly, is it their intention to relax or to maintain the rules relating to the import of queens and bees?

My Lords, we do not have any plans to relax import controls. So far as the impact of bee losses on pollination of crops is concerned, I am advised that the reports for the prospects of flowering and fruit set of top fruit crops are excellent. At present it is unlikely that pollination may be inadequate because of the losses that have been suffered in the bee stocks.

My Lords, is the Minister not aware that in the North of England there is evidence at hand to show that for some beekeepers whole colonies of bees have been wiped out and that these people are facing bankruptcy? Will the Minister cast his mind back to two or three winters ago when, because of severe snow falls, farmers in various parts of the country received Government assistance to save them from such bankruptcy? Could this type of financial assistance for people who are facing financial ruin be extended as suggested by the noble Lord who put the Question on the Order Paper?

My Lords, I very much sympathise with those who have suffered losses in their bee colonies. But I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, that the financial assistance which was given last winter was given to those whose livelihoods were most seriously affected and who we thought could not continue in the livestock sector unless a special package of aid on a very limited basis was provided; and that was a once-and-for-all emergency.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the beekeepers of Britain deserve the utmost support? There is no great publicity or parliamentary lobby of beekeepers. Nevertheless, they are, and have been for 2,000 years, an esential part of life in this country. Would the noble Lord say whether he or his right honourable friend have met representatives of the Society of Beekeepers in Britain and what case they have made? Is he aware that it is true that some of these beekeepers are on the verge of insolvency as the result of the winter described by his noble friend?

My Lords, I have not met beekeepers in their professional association. I have, however, replied to a very large number of letters from beekeepers and members of another place making representations.

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether it is possible for beekeepers to insure against a natural disaster of this sort and, if it is so, how many of them do so?

My Lords, I do not know the answer to that supplementary question. I apologise. I will find out and write to my noble friend.

My Lords, have the Government any plans to help beekeepers with the price of sugar for their winter feeding? I understand that they are having to pay £400 a ton, which is the EC price, whereas the world price for sugar is £150 a ton. Is there any way in which they can be helped during the winter months?

My Lords, cheap sugar would not have repaired the losses in the bee colonies. We do not have any such plans.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that of all the honey consumed in the United Kingdom over 70 per cent. is imported from abroad, as is the case in Europe itself, and that his own experts, considerable experts in his own department, are of the opinion that this is partly the result of the fact that we have no national bee-products policy or, indeed, a bee policy?

My Lords, I think, that, uncharacteristically, my noble friend is being a little less than fair. The Ministry of Agriculture provides a free diagnostic service and advice to beekeepers in this country and we make sure that bee health is preserved by very strict import controls, which means individual scrutiny of any imports coming in, being carried out again by Ministry of Agriculture officials. We really do quite a lot for this particular sector of the agriculture and horticulture industry.

My Lords, could the noble Lord inform the House whether there is a special title and item in the EC budget in relation to aid to beekeepers? I know that there was for some time during the period that I was there and that most of it seemed to go to Bavaria. Would the noble Lord find out whether there is now such an item and, if so, whether some of it might be diverted to the United Kingdom in view of the fact that the United Kingdom pays for most of anyway?

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in 1985 we exported £2 million worth of honey compared with importing £12 million worth? Would he consider encouraging greater production after the recovery of the stock and perhaps ask his noble friend the Secretary of State for Employment whether he would get the MSC to teach youngsters how to keep bees and help them to set up their own small industries?

My Lords, I think that my noble friend is on to a good point; but pouring Government money into assisting rural industry is something which we need to look at and I shall certainly look carefully at what my noble friend is saying on this particular point.

My Lords, could the noble Lord also let us know what the effect of the hard winter has been on the British native birds? Before he answers that this is not the same Question, may I say to him that I have always understood that there is quite a relationship between the bees and the birds.