Skip to main content


Volume 710: debated on Thursday 21 May 2009


Moved By

To call attention to the effect of disease on the British bee population, the spread of the varroa mite and the consequences for the pollination of crops and fruit; and to move for Papers.

My Lords, the honey bee is under threat. There is no single cause, but uniquely in the insect world, we can have a direct impact on their survival since for generations we have harvested honey from these remarkable creatures and managed their welfare in hives. To a far-reaching extent, their future lies in our hands, which is why I wish to speak to the Motion standing in my name and seek assurances from the Minister regarding their welfare. I have no financial interest to declare. I am not involved with the industry, I own no hives, nor indeed do I carry the name of Lord Hives who, I understand, introduced a bee Bill in your Lordships’ House when this was last debated. I do not claim to be an expert, but I have grown to respect those who work with honey bees and commit their time and expertise to the protection and well-being of the bees. I am honoured to be a member of the East Sussex Beekeeping Association, expertly chaired by Brian Hopper.

One leading expert in this field is Professor Francis Ratnieks, our only professor of apiculture in the UK, whom I had the privilege of meeting last weekend. Rarely has public interest in the plight of the honey bee been more prominent. The written media have focused on the devastation of colonies from varroa mite, protozoa, viruses and bacteria. Martha Kearney, in her recently aired documentary, looked further afield to include the devastation wrought on honey bees from the uncertain world of colony collapse disorder which has dramatically affected pollination. Those whose radios are on soon after 5.45 in the morning have heard the welcome, necessary and detailed analysis as the “Farming Today” team on Radio 4 monitors the progress of honey bees in its own hives, the challenges posed by disease and the decimation of colonies of bees.

The Government have made welcome progress towards funding the necessary research to enable beekeeping to be modified so that the dramatic plight of the loss of bees and colonies can be arrested. With them, those of us interested in conservation and agricultural practice share a keen interest to reverse the decline in honey bee numbers and further understand the behaviour of these remarkable creatures. It was a month ago to the day that the Government announced that £10 million would be spent on research for pollinators, bees, butterflies and other insects. The objective of this announcement was driven in no small measure by a determination to arrest the decline in UK populations of all these insects. The funding was not 100 per cent new, nor exclusive to Defra. Indeed, it covered £2 million from the Government with the balance coming from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Natural Environment Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the Scottish Government.

Along with British Beekeepers’ Association I welcome the announcement, but I am concerned about three key issues. First, can the Minister provide assurance that the £10 million, while welcome, will not be watered down with myriad small and unco-ordinated research grants covering a wide range of the thousands of insects which, to varying degrees, can be termed pollinators? It is clear to those of us interested in the subject that research into the honey bee must take priority and the lion’s share of the funding. Even then, it is doubtful that the decline in bee populations will be managed without a further increase in funding.

Secondly, can the Minister ensure that the funding committee which will oversee the research acts quickly and co-ordinates effectively? Thirdly, can the Minister assure the House that the funding committee will be constituted of experts, with at least one member of it as an expert in the honey bee?

With the permission of the House, I should like to address these issues in greater detail. I believe that the main need is for further research and action in the following general areas: what is killing beehives; how to keep our beehives alive and healthy, including control of the varroa; and how to reverse the decline in hive numbers. At the moment it is unclear how the £10 million will be allocated. It may be helpful if the beekeepers, probably a representative of the BBKA—the British Beekeepers’ Association—were on the funding committee. I am hoping that a good share of the funding will go to the honey bee and that university researchers will be allowed to apply.

I am not sure what the timescale of this will be but I am concerned. In my experience it is likely to be something like this. First, there will be a call for proposals in a few months, after deliberations by funding bodies on priorities and so on. As there are six funding bodies, it may take longer. There will be a deadline for proposals to be submitted to funders. Probably at least three months is needed to allow researchers to do this. Then there will be a review of proposals. This can take up to six months, but must surely be speeded up in this case. As we can see, this process will likely take a year, and then the projects that are funded can be started. Again, it normally takes at least three months, and potentially more, to get a project rolling as it involves hiring researchers. In any event, it may well be the summer of 2010 before this money generates action. That timetable is, in my view—and I hope the view of the Minister—unacceptable.

I have a suggestion: I would be grateful if the Minister could look to fund existing projects as well, but only existing projects on a fast track which fully match the stated interests of Defra, which recently wrote a report, and the National Audit Office, which recently undertook an audit on bee health. In Healthy Bees: Protecting and Improving the Health of Honey Bees in England and Wales, Defra stated that:

“The plan describes the five main things we want to achieve working with, individual beekeepers, their associations and other stakeholders. These are: To keep pests, diseases and other hazards to the lowest levels achievable; To promote good standards of husbandry to minimise pest and diseases risks and contribute to sustaining honey bee populations—prevention is better than cure; To encourage effective biosecurity to minimise risks from pests, diseases and an undesirable species; To ensure that sound science underpins bee health policy and its implementation; and … To get everyone to work together on bee health”.

The NAO report pointed out the need for funding university-based bee health research and also commented favourably on the vital work undertaken on hygienic bees.

The potential for diluting the welcome investment in research into pollinators is critical. That is why I encourage the Minister to look for a swift rollout of support and a few key projects to be funded. As I have mentioned, there are thousands of pollinators but the bee population is unique and, in many respects, it is that unique nature that is likely to maximise the effectiveness of the research programmes. For the most part, bees are kept by beekeepers; as such, they are man-managed. They do the hard work for us. By interpreting their dances we can tell where they are going and where they are not going. By providing information about how honey bees use the landscape, we in turn can provide guidance to farmers and landowners about how they can improve the use of the precious resources of the countryside. This position was endorsed by the NFU. In welcoming the £10 million research programme it called for “accurate targeting” of the funds to identify and solve the real problems facing the key pollinators of crops.

Some specialists put down the plight of the honey bee to climate change alone. I do not share their view. On the contrary, the blame levelled on climate change for far-reaching change in our environment is too frequently abused, erroneous and oversimplistic. The rarely heard first cuckoo, the growingly infrequent songs of the nightingale, the millions of tonnes of poison on the earth, the pollution of the oceans and even the forest fires of Australia—a product of inadequate water retention rather than climate change—are more accurately ascribed to the challenge of environmental management, which lies in our own hands. Real environmental change will come from a change to our landscape. Just as bees constantly monitor the landscape to seek out the most profitable sources, so should we mirror their behaviour by protecting and nurturing the environment on which they depend.

There is little doubt that we must, as a matter of urgency, breed disease-resistant, hygienic bees and provide breeder queens to beekeepers. Breeding disease-resistant, hygienic honey bees is at the heart of the Sussex plan. I live in that county and I commend the report to the House. To me, this is essential work. It will take another three or four years to realise the benefits of this research; after all, animal breeding never ends. Rearing honey bee queens is not a panacea but it is a string to the beekeeper’s bow. This debate is about strengthening that bow through improved, increased and urgently required research now.

We also need to address the question posed in the Sussex plan of research, development and extension. The main question was: how good is the British countryside for honey bees? The number of beehives in the United Kingdom has declined by nearly 75 per cent in the past century from approximately 1 million to 280,000. One major reason for this is a change in land use, leading to fewer flowers. Fields of wheat and barley now have few weeds. Fields of grass now have few wild flowers, and clover is less used. Much of the heather moorland has been ploughed up. To stay in business, commercial beekeepers need hives to produce reasonable honey crops.

I recommend that the Minister, in taking urgent action, also asks all government departments and related agencies to consider specific planting programmes to support the honey bee. The Forestry Commission could surely look at planting programmes for specific trees, such as acacia or limes. The city of Sheffield, by planting tens of thousands of limes, now produces a superb crop of lime tree honey when the weather is kind. Town planners should take a similar approach. The enterprising initiative by the village of Hailsham in Sussex to plant to support the honey bee population is a potential showcase example for towns, villages and cities across the country. Let us call for a return to planting clover. Let us ensure that the Olympic Park, the largest new urban park in Europe, is planted with bee colonies in mind so that local honey can be managed and bottled by local communities, which can bring that local produce to the table of the world’s athletes and the communities in the East End of London for many years thereafter.

That leads on to supporting the Sussex plan, not just for its own merits but as a blueprint for counties and regions across the country. Colony collapse disorder, leaving beehives deserted of honey bees; the growing prevalence of virus-based diseases; the use of insecticides, as evidenced by the gypsy moth spraying in the United States; the wider spread of the tracheal mite, pathogens, protozoa, viruses and bacteria; the impairment of bees’ navigational skills; the loss of 30 per cent of our colonies; and the year-on-year decline in honey bee numbers surely all require action today.

What is more, for once this is an area of government policy that would be widely popular. The protection of honey bees is popular with the public. Why not set up programmes in all our schools to monitor the waggle dance on YouTube for children to decipher this remarkable animal’s signal and learn about environment management schemes in their towns and countryside? “Farming Today” listeners and its cohorts of AB letter-writers will be penning their letters of support to the Minister, and Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells—I declare an interest as a resident of that town—will reach for the PC to send congratulatory e-mails, if, and only if, he can address the House today with the assurance that the £10 million will be fully committed to research projects by year end, that it will be directed principally towards honey bee research and development and that more money will follow on an annual basis until we reverse the trend of dying hives, reduced honey crops and colonies of dead bees.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, for initiating this debate. I declare an interest as an associate member of the Scottish Beekeepers Association. I pay tribute to the valuable part that such associations play throughout the country in the promotion of beekeeping and in the education of beekeepers.

I speak with limited knowledge, having kept one hive in an urban environment, but recent publicity about the plight of bees has aroused public interest in beekeeping countrywide, not least in towns and cities. For instance, a recent edition of the Scotsman featured a lady who about a year ago had taken up beekeeping and now keeps two hives in her small garden in Partick in Glasgow.

An increase in the number of beekeepers with what might be described as amateur status can be helpful in maintaining the number of honey bees within this country, but it may exaggerate some of the problems that now beset beekeeping. From my own experience, I am well aware of the problem of the varroa mite, which has been described to me by a professional beekeeper as the single greatest threat to the honey bee in Scotland. Despite fears voiced in recent documentaries, colony collapse has not been a significant feature of the Scottish scene.

However, the spread of the varroa mite in Scotland has been marked in many areas. Another beekeeper living in Argyll told me that until a year or so ago his hives had been free of varroa, but they had now been affected. He suspected that the mite had been introduced by bees transported from an area elsewhere in Scotland where varroa was rife.

I have been advised that there remain areas in Scotland where bee colonies have not as yet been affected by the mite—namely, remoter areas to the north and west of Scotland and some of the islands. Such varroa-free areas have the capacity to provide a valuable research resource. Among the bees that flourish in such areas is the native dark honeybee, Apis mellifera mellifera. Because of their remoteness, some such colonies are unlikely to be hybrid and therefore are a valuable, if not unique, genetic resource that should be carefully guarded from hybridity and consequential genetic erosion and protected from infestation by the varroa mite. The introduction of other species of bees into such areas can serve only to encourage the generation of hybrid strains, as has happened elsewhere. These factors suggest that urgent consideration should be given to the restriction of the movement of bees from areas where varroa is known to be prevalent to such varroa-free areas. Until some two years ago, restrictions on the movement of bees were in place in Scotland, but these restrictions were then removed and are no longer in place.

There is one further consequence of the spread of the varroa mite in Scotland. A major source of forage for bee colonies in Scotland is heather, which does not flower until relatively late in the season. The single authorised treatment for the varroa mite that is thymol-based works only at higher temperatures that often do not prevail after the heather honey harvest has been completed. That is essential because late summer treatment cannot commence until honey is removed from the hives. Research into more protective and longer lasting treatments for the varroa mite would be a valuable addition to the armoury of the Scottish beekeeper, and probably of beekeepers throughout the United Kingdom; there must be a community of interest in these matters throughout the country.

My message in this brief intervention is to encourage research as well as restriction of movement. I look forward to hearing further from the Minister on these matters with particular regard to the problems of Scottish beekeeping concerning unique genetic resources, movement controls and difficulties of varroa treatment, as well as on the other specific and more general points that the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, has raised and others will raise in this debate.

My Lords, I am full of agreement with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cameron of Lochbroom, about the need to look into this important issue across the whole of the United Kingdom in an integrated way. Indeed, I would go further and say that it needs a pan-European look, because this problem affects much of western Europe. That said, I am not a scientist and I have absolutely no interest to declare in the issue except in the subject itself.

That the problem exists but cannot be easily explained and then shared is self-evident. This is not one of those crises that is amenable to some magic new law or freshly minted set of regulations, let alone freshly minted government expenditure of a huge amount—although my noble friend Lord Moynihan was quite right about the way in which the £10 million should be spent. In other words, this is a problem to which all the usual public policy panaceas are not necessarily easily applied. There are sometimes extraordinary population explosions in the animal world, mirrored by equally extraordinary population declines. There can be sudden or, on occasions, long-drawn-out declines. There is an unpredictable asymmetry to these swings and roundabouts in nature, in which mankind is sometimes a damage-doing participant and sometimes a surprised and worried spectator, as are many of us in your Lordships' House this afternoon.

The present honey-bee catastrophe made manifest in sudden or colony collapse disorder is not amenable to simple explanation. There are perhaps half a dozen possibilities which have been advanced. Some of them may be interconnected; it may not be just the mite, which I understand—I stress that I am no scientist—to be very much like a little spider. It may not be the varroa mite which is the cause of all evil, but the varroa mite related to other forms of practice. None the less, the population decline should be considered as urgent and, as I have just said, is of interest not only to the United Kingdom but to Europe as a whole. This may not be easy to grasp for the great majority of our population, not all of whom are up at 5.45 in the morning listening to “Farming Today”. The majority of our population is urban, and many, alas, still regard some country or farming practices as alien, for we still have a strong sense of there being two nations—the urban nation and the rural nation—one of which is very large and overweening and the other small and threatened. The rural nation is sometimes not fully understood, but it is in the interests as much of urban-dwelling people as of rural-dwelling people to be concerned about this problem—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cameron, mentioned the lady with her two hives in her back garden in Partick—because the impact of failure is not just in honey production but, much more significantly, in the whole annual pollination cycle in many crops and most trees. This is most definitely not a minority rural issue.

I have been told by those who are more expert than me that up to one-third of our diet needs pollination. As my noble friend Lord Moynihan pointed out, while bees do not have an absolute monopoly on the activity—there are lots of other pollinators—they are probably the nation’s prime pollinators of ground fruits such as raspberries, of top fruits such as apples and pears and of legumes such as beans and peas. Any failure of pollination in those crops will therefore be manifested pretty quickly and in-year. For trees, it may be slightly different. Let us take one obvious example which I think we all know: the horse chestnut in the wild. Failure to pollinate that tree would equal no conkers. No conkers equals no later regeneration of that patch of woodland by that and other species of trees. So there may—I say only “may”—be a dendrological time bomb in woodlands whose effect would be generational rather than annual. It would not be noticeable for years, but it is an added dimension to the problem which my noble friend described so clearly.

Overall, the impact on our rural productive economy of total failure in the pollination cycle has been estimated at many hundreds of millions of pounds. What can be done? I have sought advice from some experts. There seems to a consensus that solutions, whatever they are, must be broad brush and integrated—a thought that I owe to one expert beekeeper who is also a highly distinguished and very successful former chief executive officer of the Meteorological Office.

I have four suggestions for what might be done. First, there is the need for integrated pest and hive management, which not only strives to find ways of dealing with the mite but also involves better treatment of gut diseases by antibiotics, close attention to hygiene and careful temperature control in the winter. This and much more is needed. The message of integration needs to be spread.

Secondly, we need the promotion of cost-effective research, which my noble friend Lord Moynihan put his finger right on. The research effort must not be dissipated; it must be cost-effective. It should be across not just the United Kingdom but Europe as a whole. That would be a truly useful task for some of the less bureaucratic mechanisms of the European Union.

Thirdly, I turn to bee inspectors. I have never seen a bee inspector, and I do not know whether they wear a uniform or what it might be like, but I am told that those important people, with their unfettered and police-like powers of entry, have been much reduced in numbers in recent years. Can the Minister give us up-to-date numbers for bee inspectors and explain whether there are plans to increase their capacity, at least temporarily, during the looming catastrophe which we face with the honey bee? Perhaps we could lure former inspectors out of retirement and back to hive patrolling for a period of years to fill the gap and help out until a solution is found, as we all hope.

Fourthly, I say cautiously, because I am ideologically opposed to regulation, that the Government should consider for the period in which the problem is being tackled and resolved the need at least for temporary registration of all beekeepers—I do not say regulation but registration—to give an accurate geography of where the problems are and where the bees are being kept, be it in Hailsham in Sussex or a back garden in Partick, because people will need all the advice they can get. I say this with temerity, because I know how temporary registration schemes have a terrible habit of becoming permanent, but I speak of something which is strictly limited to allow solutions—if they are to be found—and good practice to be disseminated among all those who keep honey bees.

Many other measures in addition to those four can be taken, most of which have been clearly pointed out by my noble friend Lord Moynihan. In the week of the Chelsea Flower Show, wildlife-friendly gardens are very fashionable. Planting with an eye to bees can make a useful contribution to bringing the urban and the rural nations together, although it has to be handled with care. My noble friend mentioned the importance of the planting of lime trees in increasing honey production in Leeds. I can think of one species of lime, Tilia petiolaris, which is very floriferous and wonderful to smell but has a terrible narcotic effect on the bumble bee, which after a short period falls drunken on the ground with its legs twitching. Happily, it generally recovers but almost immediately returns to the flower—I guess that that is a habit also of some humans, on returning to the scenes of their intoxication. So, beware Tilia petiolaris.

The Minister, I hope, has found me uncharacteristically reasonable, muted and prepared not to blame the Government but to make suggestions and work with them. I see him nodding assent—he has never seen me in this state in all the years in which we have known each other, both in another place and in this one—and I find myself caught rather by surprise. He need not fear, first, that I am going to blame the Government for the entire problem—I wish that I could, but I cannot—or, secondly, that I am going to call for massive new public expenditure or an enormous new bureaucracy, although I do think that the money needs to be spent in the way in which my noble friend Lord Moynihan pointed out. He certainly does not have to fear that I am going to call for the appointment of some bee supremo or bee tsar by the Prime Minister to look into all the problems. By the way, what did happen to all those tsars that were appointed in such blazes of publicity since 1997? What did they actually achieve, and what have they done since the first photocall was completed? That is something for future political historians like my noble friend from the University of Hull to look into.

Neither am I going to suggest, the Minister will surely be relieved to hear, that there should be some sort of bee summit in No. 10, with the Prime Minister being forced to pose, looking interested, beside a hive introduced into the garden after the discussions are all over. No; we need a common-sense approach to this issue. I hope that the Minister will respond to my considered and modest suggestions, but respond much more clearly and in terms to the magnificent and highly important speech of my noble friend Lord Moynihan.

My Lords, I should draw the attention of the House to my declaration of interests; I own agricultural property, and my law firm has an agricultural practice which, I believe, includes beekeepers. Unlike Dr Vince Cable from the other place, I am not a beekeeper and, as will become apparent, my expertise in this field is limited. However, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, on calling for this debate on an important and far-reaching problem. I also congratulate the British Beekeepers’ Association and Mr Tim Lovett, its president, for alerting the country to the consequences of varroa and other diseases that are currently devastating the bee population in this country and much of the rest of the world. I also congratulate them on the work that they are doing to assist in overcoming those diseases and problems.

The Government’s announcement of additional funding on 21 April for research into bee health has also rightly been welcomed throughout the House. The role of bees is crucial in the pollination of plants and many other aspects of our ecology. Bee products, such as honey and beeswax, have great nutritional and other benefits. In a well-known shop the other day, I picked up some honey lip balm and some almond milk beeswax hand cream—not for my own use but for somebody else’s. The therapeutic effects of beeswax and honey are legendary, but the role of bees in facilitating pollination and the ecosystem is essential.

The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, was absolutely correct that there is considerable public interest in this matter. I learnt from an article in the Daily Mail of 19 May that Albert Einstein is reputed to have said,

“If the bee disappeared from the surface of the Earth, Man would have no more than four years to live”.

I also learnt from the article that:

“It is estimated that bees contribute about £850 million a year to Britain’s economy simply by pollinating commercial crops”.

I am informed that there is considerable concern about the threat of bee colony collapse disorder, which has been devastating the beekeeping industry in the United States of America. An inexplicable loss of worker bees has resulted in between 50 per cent and 90 per cent of colonies dying across the United States. I am informed that the factors considered important in the decline of bees are parasites and diseases, changes in the availability of forage, changes in beekeeping practices and, possibly, exposure to pesticides. Those factors do not work in isolation; nevertheless, the spread of varroa is universally acknowledged as the crucially important factor in the decline of bees. The presence of varroa has also triggered a dramatic increase in the spread of other viruses in the bee population.

As I have said, bees not only provide a potential pollination service for crops and wild plants—a very important service—but they are vital for world agriculture and horticulture, pollinating not only food crops but particularly fruit and vegetables. The decline of the bee population is having a terrible impact on subsistence farmers in many developing countries. The importance of the problem in the United Kingdom is also demonstrated, as I understand it, by the Scottish Government and the Wellcome Trust making contributions to research grants.

The honey bee is the principal pollinator and is of immense economic significance in plant pollination. The funding has been welcomed but, as the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, said, it is essential to ensure that its bulk will go on bee health research. I hope that the Minister will reply on this point and assure the House and the British public that this is exactly what is happening. It would also be interesting to hear from the Minister what research is being done in the United States, as well as in other countries, and what level of co-ordination there is between our British research bodies and those of the United States—and, for that matter, those of other countries being blighted by this dreadful disease. It is a worldwide problem; all countries should learn from one another and be only too happy to pool research and information.

Finally, for agriculture there are a number of tax advantages: for example, tax averaging for income tax purposes. Can the Minister confirm whether those advantages are available to this country’s hard-pressed beekeepers? There is much important work to be done, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister on what progress is being made.

My Lords, the House is much in the debt of my noble friend Lord Moynihan for bringing up this timely topic for us to discuss. I declare my interest in the welfare of bees as a countryman and a farmer. I notice that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimates that the economic value of crops grown commercially in the UK that benefit from bee pollination is around £120 million to £200 million per annum. I presume that that refers to crops with an immediately marketable value.

Another aspect follows on from the debate that was concluded in this House earlier on the need for an intensive strategy to reduce carbon emissions if we are to meet the Government’s 2050 target. The area of relevance to the case we are considering is the substitution of artificial nitrogenous fertilisers—which represent a huge generation of CO2—with bacterial nitrogen fixation in crops, which at the moment is confined to leguminous crops. I do not know whether I can offer any comfort regarding the concerns of my noble friend Lord Moynihan, as both organic and grassland farmers are having to turn increasingly to these crops—particularly clover—to sustain viable production. This was particularly so when the price of artificial nitrogen went above £250 a tonne last year. Although it has now dropped back to about £180 a tonne, that is still twice what it was previously. Leguminous crops are highly dependent on bees and form an important base in the honey market. Has the Minister’s department any estimate of the value of leguminous crops to the economy in their role of nitrogen fixation, and will they consider adding that to the benefits that we obtain from bees?

The effect of disease on bees seems fairly straightforward—they die. I am not a beekeeper and so am not aware of actions that may be taken to heal them after disease has struck, although I believe that it is possible to remove healthy bees from a hive containing European foulbrood. As mentioned by my noble friend, the Government have persuaded key research funders to devote an extra £8 million to bee health research. This is most welcome as the previous figure of £2 million was patently inadequate. From what my noble friend Lord Moynihan said, it seems that this extra money will come from other budgets and not directly from Defra.

The British Beekeepers’ Association has been active, and in its document, Honey Bee Health Research Concepts, has identified the key research projects that it would like to be pursued. Has this list been incorporated as part of the Defra bee health strategy, as I understand there has been criticism of the level of consultation that was undertaken in drawing up this policy? Like other noble Lords, I have received briefing from the University of Sussex’s specialist apiculture department. It is encouraging to see the four projects that it already has under way, and which in some ways mirror those mentioned by my noble friend Lord Moynihan. Do the Government have plans to extend this kind of research by similar outside agencies, or will their efforts be concentrated on their own research facilities such as the National Bee Unit?

The Government’s report, The Health of Livestock and Honeybees in England, makes a number of points that give me cause for concern. Defra estimates that there are 40,000 beekeepers and keeps a database containing details of 17,000 active beekeepers, which is roughly half of all those who keep bees in England and Wales. It also keeps a record of 14,300 who have kept bees but do not now have any. This sounds a little bit like the DNA database, and, one wonders, at what cost? Have the “several thousand revisions” identified through the Bee Unit inspectors’ survey been entered in the records?

Returning to the worries of my noble friend Lord Patten, I have been informed that one initiative springing from this new emphasis on the health of bees is to compile a complete register of all beekeepers in the country. What budget has been estimated for the cost of obtaining and registering the details of the remaining number? This type of exercise is a statistician’s delight but, given that so much research is required, is that really the most effective use of the money?

Most of my information comes from the National Audit Office’s excellent publication, The Health of Livestock and Honeybees in England, published on 4 March this year. Section 4.13 deals with imported exotic diseases of honeybees. The facts are astounding to one who seldom, if ever, considers bees and fatal disease in the same breath. The spread of the varroa mite—which was much mentioned this afternoon—has been inexorable. It has developed resistance to traditional treatments and is now regarded by Defra as impossible to eradicate. It was removed from the list of notifiable diseases in March 2006. Instead, the National Bee Unit has issued guidance on methods of killing the mite and the Veterinary Medicines Directorate has begun talks in Europe aimed at relaxing the licensing requirements for treatments. There are annual imports of some 9,000 queen honeybees into England and Wales. Of these, in 2008, 5,500 came in 103 consignments from the EU and were subjected to a 10 per cent physical check, which identified two cases of notifiable disease. Imports from the rest of the world came in the form of 63 consignments, containing a total of nearly 4,000 queen honeybees. All of them were physically examined and disease or pests were found in 24 consignments—that is, 38 per cent. None of the diseases found was notifiable, but some of them were known to weaken bee colonies, making them more vulnerable to more serious infections.

I find myself wondering how our bees have come to suffer both from varroa and sudden colony collapse. Is it because the infecting agent is airborne? Does it come in on imported fruit and foods carried by commercial transport, or conceivably in passenger luggage? Is it perhaps the result of the evolution of some other bug which lives here and in its original form may not even affect bees? However it begins, the disease of the varroa or sudden colony collapse variety threatens crop fertility in our fields, gardens and allotments. The severity of this threat ranges from the loss of output of £120 million per year, of which we spoke earlier, to the scenario mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, of the annihilation of the human race within four years. I do not believe either scenario and consider that such guessing games to be irrelevant, provided we take the actions necessary to protect our bees from disaster.

I have been involved in farming and country management most of my life and I regret that it is most unusual for any farmer or major landowner to keep his own bees for his own crop. There are increasingly those who have in recent years made considerable efforts to ensure that they grow the sort of products that attract bees to their land. They are aware of the importance of bees to husbandry in general, but do not seem to be able to take steps to import their own bees, to house their own colonies or to encourage others to keep bees close to their land. Have the Government discussed this possibility with the NFU or have they commissioned the Bee Unit to try to extend the range and numbers of those involved?

The report that I referred to makes a number of points that give further cause for concern. It speaks of an online database linked to a website, together known as BeeBase, which supplies details of the incidence of disease and guidance on best practice. The report, however, is critical of the website’s efficacy. I can do no better than quote the report, which states that,

“the website is not fully compatible with the minimum accessibility standards required for government websites, meaning that not all web-users would be able to view it properly. Typing search terms such as ‘bees’, ‘bee advice’ or similar words into an internet search engine did not find BeeBase on the first page of results, making it less likely that beekeepers previously unaware of BeeBase would have found the site. In addition, we found that some of the information on the website was out of date”.

This failing is made even more important by the finding, noted in paragraph 4.17, that,

“not all beekeepers are fully aware of the regulations for importing honeybees, and some do not know that there are controls relating to imports from within the EU”.

The report states that nearly 80 per cent of reported cases of notifiable disease are found by members of the Bee Unit in the course of inspecting hives; 17 per cent are notified by beekeepers already on the database, but only 3 per cent by non-registered keepers. The report comments that if disease is present in the same proportion in colonies belonging to unregistered beekeepers as in those whose details are on the database there is more than twice as much bee disease in this country than has been identified. The report goes on to suggest that this extra level of disease is not being notified because the beekeepers concerned do not know how to identify notifiable diseases or are unaware of the requirement to notify any they find. This is an important problem.

Will the Minister take urgent steps to ensure that the website conforms to government standards? Will he then instruct Defra to advertise the website in other publications that are likely to reach the 17,000-odd hobby beekeepers not on the database and not in regular touch with other beekeepers? I suggest, for example, putting an advertisement in county council newsletters that are delivered to local homes once or twice each year, on the premise that someone with one hobby may well have another. It might also be possible to put an advertisement on the main noticeboard of every further education college in England and Wales.

Let us hope that our efforts today will bring the issue of bee survival further up the agenda of people’s concerns.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, on introducing such an important topic and speaking to it in such a constructive way. I am grateful to him for several of the points that he made.

I should emphasise—this is a partial response to the anxiety expressed by the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, about the means of communication—that there are 44,000 beekeepers in the United Kingdom and only 300 professional bee farmers. It is easy enough to relate to the professionals but much more difficult to deal with the enormous number of beekeepers who have only one or two hives and, as the noble Duke indicated, are difficult to communicate with and often lack essential knowledge. I assure him that we will take on board his point about how our communication might be more effective. I certainly accept his injunction about cleaning up the website and getting rid of some of its imperfections. Work is under way on that. We are all too well aware of how important it is for communication to be effective and accurate, and I am grateful to him for identifying areas where things could be improved.

I have absolutely no answer for the noble Duke on the wonderful question of whether we have a monetary analysis, which I think is what he really wanted, of the value of nitrogen fixation in leguminous crops in the United Kingdom. I can only just pronounce the concept, let alone produce an answer to his question. I have not the faintest idea about that and am not sure whether anyone in government has, but if an answer emerges I shall assuredly write to him.

There is one other point with which I want to deal briefly. The noble Lord, Lord Burnett, mentioned the United States, where there are very real anxieties about the bee population. The only point of solace that I can give in discussing a very real problem requiring urgent action is that, unlike the United States, we do not have a massive industry in bee movement for the specific pollination of farmers’ crops. That is particularly the case with almond nut crops in the United States, where bees are cultivated and carried vast distances to pollinate farmers’ crops at particular times of the year. We do not have that movement problem in the United Kingdom, so in that sense we can be a little more confident of keeping control over the issues than in the United States, from where we hear from time to time the most alarming messages about the bee population. Of course, those messages are a warning to us about why our action here needs to be effective.

We recognise the point that the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, made in introducing the debate about the significance of honey bees for pollination and their importance to the nation’s food and to our economy as a whole. Honey bees are facing a growing number of threats from pests and diseases, including the varroa mite, which poses a significant challenge to beekeepers. I say to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cameron, that certain aspects of this matter fall to the Scottish Executive and Scottish Ministers, as he will appreciate, but I assure him that they are addressing the issues in the same way and with the same urgency as Defra is addressing them in England.

With regard to the withdrawal of the regulations, given that the noble Lord, Lord Patten, has held out the olive branch of co-operation today, I am obviously going to have to co-operate with him, and therefore I find myself, rather as he indicated, in a possibly unique position. I agree with him entirely that we should not overregulate. The regulations are just not working because they are not controlling varroa, and there is absolutely no point in insisting on retaining them if they are not producing an effect. We should address ourselves to dealing with the problem, and I shall approach that issue in a moment. However, there is an element of deregulation, which I am sure will commend itself to the noble Lord.

Today, I particularly want to emphasise the work that we are already undertaking. I cannot answer the question about whether bee inspectors wear uniforms, but they certainly do not have police powers. There are only 70 bee inspectors and they are crucial to the work that we are doing to deal with the current problems that we face. The National Bee Unit and its inspectors are a crucial part of Defra’s current work. They receive funding from both Defra and the Welsh Assembly Government.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, who is being so helpful. It may be difficult for him to answer the question today, but I asked specifically whether in recent years the number of bee inspectors had been reduced. If the noble Lord cannot give an answer this afternoon, perhaps he will write to me. My noble friend Lord Moynihan and I wonder whether a call for volunteers to help the bee inspectorate would appeal to the Minister.

My Lords, it might appeal to the Minister, but bee inspectors have to be trained and need expertise. Transforming volunteers into effective bee inspectors is quite a challenge. I emphasise that the National Bee Unit is a serious unit, on which we rely a great deal as one of the weapons that we are deploying to tackle the issues that we face. The main activities are inspection and enforcement. The bee inspectors are out in the field, controlling notifiable pests and diseases. The unit is responsible for research and development. It also has that crucial role of communication, which the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, suggested needed to be fulfilled as effectively as possible. It has a crucial role in advising beekeepers, which is a significant task. The unit contributes to the evidence-based policy development, including identifying risks to bee health from current and emerging threats. The National Bee Unit is critical to this challenging issue that we all face.

The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, identified for the House aspects of government activity in terms of the Healthy Bees plan, which the Government published in March after considerable publicity. The plan comes from the recognition that honey bees are facing a number of threats from pests and diseases. It gives direction and focus for the Government, beekeepers and other stakeholders to work together to respond effectively to the threats and to sustain honey bees and beekeeping now and in the future. There is no doubt that the challenge to beekeepers is significant. The plan, as rightly identified by the noble Lord, sets out to keep pests, disease and other hazards to as low a level as possible. It sets out standards of good beekeeping and seeks to establish effective biosecurity to prevent the spread of pests and diseases. It will ensure that everything that we do is underpinned by sound science and evidence.

I shall come on to the science in a moment, because the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, and other noble Lords put great emphasis on the research aspect, which is of the greatest importance. Of course, the plan is an attempt to get everyone to work together on a common problem, or I should say problems, because we do not know what the individual problem is. The challenge is enormous. In response, on top of the current £1.3 million a year that is allocated, the National Bee Unit will receive an additional £2.3 million over two years, which will be used for the following three priorities. The first is to get a more accurate picture of the numbers and distribution of beekeepers and a robust assessment of the health of their colonies, which presupposes that it will address the issues raised by the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, of effective communication. Its second priority is to increase learning opportunities, because by definition, if we have an extraordinarily enthusiastic but nevertheless amateur industry on the whole, it is very important to support, educate and encourage beekeepers in good husbandry. Prevention is, after all, better than cure.

My Lords, the extra funding, which I am coming to in a moment, relates specifically to research. It is not part of that.

The third priority, which the noble Lord emphasised to me, is that we have our databases up to date. They are a key source of free advice, training and information for beekeepers in this interesting but diverse industry.

The importance of engaging beekeepers has been given renewed emphasis by the many reports of colony collapse, which raises the question of how seriously our bees are under threat. Of course, today’s debate has identified just how anxious the House is. There is no doubt that the varroa mite is a great anxiety. We cannot attribute to it the sole responsibility for the difficulties that we face. In fact, because we do not know the range and nature of the threats to bees and the issues of colony collapse, we are putting great emphasis on research, as the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, kindly identified in his opening contribution. By definition, however, because we do not know, we must be less than specific about research. I am grateful to noble Lords who have succumbed to our important and sagacious lobbyists. I heard the University of Sussex mentioned. The department has had the benefit of a note from that university. No one will underestimate the significance of its contribution, but it is too early to judge whether its submission is the best one for tackling this issue. We are inevitably involved in an evaluation of the submissions that emerge and I have no doubt that the University of Sussex will play its full part in that.

Unless we are extraordinarily fortunate, we will not expect to be able to identify only one research strategy. If one is unsure of the nature of the problem, the research must have an element of diversity to it by definition. However, I entirely accept the indication of the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, that the problem with research is that it may take an undue amount of time. It takes time to reach decisions on who should receive the money and then more time to translate the allocation of the money into effective action. We are expecting research submissions to be packaged and presented in such a way that some of the issues that the noble Lord raises about how long it takes to appoint researchers and so on may be solved within that framework, because the people are already in post to carry out that work.

I entirely accept the noble Lord’s point that the necessity for research cannot be denied, as the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, also emphasised. It must not be an argument for delay when every noble Lord who has contributed to this debate has emphasised the urgency of the situation. That is why we are launching this important new research initiative, as announced in April, to tackle the decline in insect pollinators, including honey bees. As noble Lords have indicated, there are more contributors to this situation than just the honey bee, important though it undoubtedly is. Understanding the causes of its decline will help us to identify the best possible action to support and sustain the species for the future. This is of surpassing importance given the role of pollinators in local food production, which has been thoroughly identified by a number of contributions to this short debate.

Of the £10 million to be devoted to research, Defra has contributed £2.5 million. This is a joint initiative from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Natural Environment Research Council, the Wellcome Trust, the Scottish Government and, of course, Defra itself. I can assure the House that this research project will be treated with the requisite degree of urgency—a point that I have been enjoined to respond to in the debate. The timetable for research is such that we expect invitations to be issued in late June. We therefore anticipate projects to be commissioned in early 2010.

My Lords, will the Minister bear in mind the strength of opinion across the House this afternoon that the lion’s share of the £10 million research budget should go to honey bee research?

My Lords, I am careful about being too pre-emptive because of our necessary reservations about the research projects that will emerge, but I think that the noble Lord is right. We have identified the particular threat that exists for honey bees at present. That is why, as the noble Lord will appreciate, those who have expressed most interest at present have emphasised the honey bee.

My Lords, in the light of what the noble Lord has said about where funding comes from—I understand that part of it comes from the Scottish Government—can I be assured that the research will cover the problems of beekeeping throughout the United Kingdom? He suggested that Scottish beekeeping is the responsibility of the Scottish Government. I would like to be assured that the research is going on in consultation with the Scottish Government about problems that are Scottish, as well as United Kingdom problems.

My Lords, of course, as the noble Lord is keen to emphasise, the problems know no boundaries in the United Kingdom. By the same token, neither does research—not research as fundamental as this is bound to be. I talked about Scottish Ministers and Scottish responsibilities more in connection with communication with Scottish beekeepers and the Executive part of the issue. On research, I can give the noble Lord the greatest reassurance.

There is one point on which I cannot respond as positively as I would like, although on all occasions I take all suggestions in debate with the utmost seriousness, as, I know, do my civil servants. Defra cannot give assurances about the waggle dance being taught to schoolchildren. That is the responsibility of another department. I have not discussed the matter with that department yet, so the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, will have to wait for me to carry out my personal research before I can give him a positive response. Failing in that respect, I hope that he has been reassured, in raising these issues this afternoon, on the importance that the Government attach to those matters and the constructive response that we intend to make.

Before the Minister sits down, with regard to the timing of the debate, I wonder whether he knows the wise country ditty, “A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay; a swarm of bees in June still is quite a boon; but a swarm found in July is not worth a fly”. As a very amateur beekeeper, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, for initiating this debate, which has been extremely informative and useful for amateur and professional beekeepers alike.

My Lords, better than from this Dispatch Box, the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, has the authentic voice of the beekeeper to contribute to the debate.

My Lords, I am deeply grateful not only for the good humour but, more importantly, for the comprehensive and informative replies given by the Minister to the points raised, especially on the R&D programme. I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cameron, very much for his focus on the varroa mite. It is timely, as the mite appears increasingly resistant to current treatment and as the damage from varroa grows. I thank my noble friend Lord Patten for his emphasis on the need for a universal agreement on an integrated and cost-effective approach. The solution needs to be wider than a British one; it has to be European and international. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, for concentrating on the pollination aspect, which, as the title of our debate suggests, has a massive effect on the agricultural economy, with $14 billion of crops in the United States pollinated by honey bees. Finally, I thank my noble friend the Duke of Montrose for his characteristically insightful speech from a lifetime of experience in matters agricultural that my noble friend and I can never aspire to. I am considerably wiser for this informative debate but no less comfortable with the threat to the survival of honey bees. In that context, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion withdrawn.

House adjourned at 3.40 pm.