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Pesticides: Bees

Volume 744: debated on Wednesday 13 March 2013


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to support European Commission proposals, to be discussed at the Standing Committee on Phytopharmaceuticals on 14 March, to reduce the use of a range of neonicotinoid pesticides hazardous to honey bees.

My Lords, the Government take very seriously the need to protect honey bees and other pollinators. We are completing our scientific assessment of neonicotinoids and have carried out new field trials. We have urged the Commission to base any proposal on a proper assessment of the science and not to make a hasty decision which might have significant knock-on impacts. We have concerns about the Commission’s current proposal as it does not appear to follow this course.

My Lords, given that the European Commission is not proposing an outright ban on neonicotinoids but recommending their suspension, under the precautionary principle of using just three pesticides on crops attractive to honey bees as further research is undertaken, will my noble friend the Minister explain to the House why France, Germany, Italy and other European countries will support the recommendations of the European Food Safety Authority, which has concluded that these insecticides pose “an unacceptable danger” to bees? If we vote against this proposal tomorrow, there is scientific evidence that British bees, already in serious decline, will suffer.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend not only for his Question today but for his long-standing interest and for initiating a recent debate in your Lordships’ House on bees. I assure noble Lords that, contrary to what they may read in the press, we approach this question with an open mind. We are, indeed, doing further analysis on fieldwork we have had carried out specifically to address this issue because it is vital that what we do is proportionate and based on the science.

My Lords, I declare my interest as an arable farmer in Warwickshire. I should like to ask two questions. First, can the noble Lord confirm that there is currently no other valid protection for seeds other than neonicotinoids? Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, will he please follow the recommendations of the Government’s own committee, the Advisory Committee on Pesticides? In July last year, its minutes stated:

“The ACP had reviewed the evidence currently available. It was noted that this evidence did not include any evidence of significant impacts in practice in the UK. Based on the current evidence ACP had concluded that there was no justification for regulatory action at present”.

Can the Government confirm that they will follow the recommendations of that committee?

My Lords, in answer to the noble Lord’s first question about whether there is any other valid form of protection for seeds, neonicotinoids are, as I understand it, the prime seed dressing. Yes, that is the case. However, there are other treatments such as pyrethroids, which can be applied after the crop has been planted, although there is increasing evidence that the pests we are talking about are becoming resistant to pyrethroids. That is a concern. In answer to his other question about taking the advice of the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, that is precisely why we are doing extra fieldwork.

My Lords, what has been the reduction, if any, in the bee population over the past few years? Is there any particular threat to the availability of honey in this country as a result?

My Lords, the whole point of this debate is that it is quite finely balanced. That is why we are doing extra fieldwork. As to whether there is an effect on the honey harvest, it is difficult to say because we do not have categoric evidence that there is an unacceptable level of harm to bees.

My Lords, if I may answer the previous question, this is not about the availability of honey; it is about pollinators. If these chemicals are damaging bees, they are damaging other pollinators at the same time. Is the noble Lord aware of the five principal problems that appear to be arising from the use of these chemicals: fatally late swarming activity, large numbers of virgin queens not returning to the colony after mating, failure of mated queens to continue to lay fertilised eggs, a high proportion of queens producing only unfertilised “male” eggs, and abnormal supersedure?

First, I categorically agree with the noble Lord that we need to talk about all pollinators. Bees are an important pollinator, but there are several other important ones. As regards his other question, those are assertions that have come out of eminently acceptable laboratory trials. Our proposal is that what is needed, and what is lacking, is evidence of what actually happens in the field.

My Lords, given that multiple threats face these important pollinators, do the Government plan to introduce a national bee strategy to reverse the decline in bee numbers?

That is an important question. There is a considerable body of government-funded work that benefits bee species and other important pollinators, but we are open-minded about the introduction of what I might call a holistic strategy. My noble friend will be pleased to hear that I am meeting Friends of the Earth on Tuesday to discuss our current work and to get a better understanding of whether there is added value in bringing it all together in a holistic strategy, such as that organisation’s proposed national bee action plan, or what the noble Lord, Lord Christopher, might like to call a national pollinator action plan.

My Lords, as your Lordships know, bees as pollinators play an essential part in the lifecycle of the fruit and vegetables that we eat. The honey bee is just one of 276 native species of bee, all of which are under threat from the combination of agricultural practice, disease and pesticides. In his department’s negotiations with the EU to reduce hazards to bees, what is the Minister aiming to achieve to protect wild bees, such as the bumble bee that pollinates tomatoes and the long-tongued bees needed to pollinate field beans? As we have heard, with Friends of the Earth calling for a national bee action plan, does he agree that it is finally time for a “plan bee”?

That was suggested to me this morning and I pointed out that it might not be something the Government would want to call it. The noble Lord makes several very interesting points, most of which I have forgotten in the hilarity. I thank him for his points.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that neonicotinoids are applied as a seed dressing and are therefore in the soil? One of the questions the Government need to look at under the precautionary principle is how long they last in the soil as they are lethal not only to bees but to many of the invertebrates that live in that soil.

My Lords, going back to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, does the noble Lord agree that among the many things that are important in preserving and developing the health and safety of bees is the increase in domestic beekeeping and encouraging people who have gardens to garden with an eye to what is good for bees? Do the Government have any plans to encourage people in either of those areas?

I am very happy to say that I do encourage people. When we had the debate the other day I said to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, who was leading for the Opposition, that I was sorely tempted, when I finished doing my current job, to become a beekeeper myself. The proposed national bee action plan could well be the sort of forum one needs to get a ground swell of opinion behind such an idea.