Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I begin by thanking noble Lords who are supporting this debate and I look forward very much to hearing their contributions. In many ways, the debate is a perfect antidote to the divisive EU withdrawal Bill, being on a subject that will affect us and future generations long after the world has forgotten what the initials “EU” even stood for.
I confess that I was generally pretty ignorant about bees and pollinators until around a year ago when a remarkable young woman, Polly Birch, who had such a passionate commitment to spreading the word about their importance, reminded me and many others about just how much we rely on them and how their numbers are in decline. This debate is timely as the Private Member’s Bill tabled by Ben Bradley MP to make provision for the protection of pollinators started its passage through the other place on 8 May.
I have only now discovered that bees are the second most written about species after man. There is even a whole body of law relating to honey bees, most of which has its basis in Roman law. A swarm still belongs to you even when it has left its hive, as long as you can still see it, and allegedly one may trespass on a neighbour’s land in order to retrieve it. Somewhere in my consciousness was the threat repeated last week by David Attenborough that should bees disappear from the face of the earth, man would have only,
“four years left to live”.
The quote is wrongly attributed to Einstein, but it is the sort of thing that he might have said. We probably would not starve because wind is a good pollinator, but there is no doubt that our diet would become very dull and getting our five-a-day would be very tricky.
This Government and the coalition before them have already done a great deal to encourage the habitats of the 1,500 or so species of insect pollinators that we have in this country. Although we may think of bees as the primary pollinators—there are 250 different varieties of them, 35 of which are currently in danger of extinction—we also have hoverflies, butterflies, beetles, moths and even bats. Most of these live in the wild, with the exception of the headline-grabbing honey bee. The NFU estimates the economic value of their pollination services at £690 million per annum but they also support a small but thriving industry of some 250 bee farmers, as well as thousands of amateur beekeepers.
The report also highlighted progress in a number of areas including habitat creation, public engagement and the protection of honey bee health, all as a result of many different sections of the community—not just the bee farming industry and the farming community, but schools, universities, charities such as the National Trust, Buglife, BeeConnected and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, and central and local government—working collaboratively. Productive beehives at Defra’s offices in London and York now produce Defra honey, as do hives on the roofs of Fortnums, Coutts and the Garrick Club.
Funding has also been provided for a range of primary research projects covering everything from genetic sequencing and the taxonomy of insect pollinators to the relationship between pollinators and pollination services in crop production. I know that the Bee Farmers Association hopes that more funds will be directed to the National Bee Unit in the Food and Environment Research Agency once the Green Paper on nature and harmony is published.
Despite all this, bees and a variety of pollinators are in decline. Clearly, much more can be done, not only by government but by us all. Let us stray into the area that is most likely to cause controversy—the use of insecticides—which I am sure will be covered in more depth by my noble friend Lord Ridley. Integrated pest management is central to this Government’s approach. The objective is to reduce the overall use of pesticides by using them in a more targeted way, to reduce resistance, and supplementing them with improved crop husbandry and the use of natural predators.
The EU recently banned the use of neonicotinoids on all field crops, not just those that are attractive to bees, as had been the case since 2013. Neonics are a group of insecticides that have been linked to a sharp reduction in bee numbers. Environmental groups welcomed this move but, interestingly, the Bee Farmers Association was agnostic about the ban. Perhaps we should be cautious. Bees in Australia, a large user of neonics, do not appear to be adversely affected and the research by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre on which this policy was based concluded that the ban may be counterproductive. It has resulted in an increased use of more damaging pesticides, mainly pyrethroids, which are sprayed rather than seed-treated; that is worse for non-pests. The study found that UK farmers have more than quadrupled the number of insecticide applications on oilseed rape but pest pressure has still increased. The JRC report has not been made public and although I urge the Government to ensure that the regulation of pesticides continues after we leave the EU, it needs to be developed on the basis of independent and verifiable scientific research.
An undeniable cause of the declining number of pollinators has been the destruction of their habitat. Over 97% of all flower-rich grasslands have been lost in England since the 1930s, whether through transport, infrastructure, modern farming methods or housebuilding. The habitats that exist have become particularly fragmented; the southern margins of their distribution are shrinking northward, while the northern margins are static. Buglife, a charity that works closely with the Government on strategy, has developed the award-winning concept of “B-Lines”, a series of insect pathways running through our towns and countryside. Along them stretch a series of wildflower-rich stepping stones, linking existing wildlife areas into a network. Much work is being undertaken to identify areas suitable for grassland habitat restoration and creation. The proposed Bill will encourage local authorities to include such considerations in area plans since the creation of a channelled pattern of habitats is the most effective way of promoting species dispersal.
Since there is a need to restore pollinator-friendly habitats, and to establish wildflower recovery areas, this could perhaps link with the aim to replace the countryside stewardship payments from the CAP with a scheme that will incentivise farmers to look after the environment. Perhaps it could also be tailored in such a way that it favours pollinators and the bee farming industry, as is the case already in Germany.
We, the public, whether city or country dwellers, can all play our part by growing a range of bee-friendly plants that will provide pollen and nectar for all pollinators. I suggest that we avoid rhododendron ponticum, whose nectar is toxic to bees, and the silver lime—Tilia tomentosa—which uses caffeine to trick bees into visiting empty flowers, whereupon many die of starvation. Moreover, although farmers and bees alike love oilseed rape, I am told that it is not ideal for honey production.
There is so much to say about bees, and I shall end by sharing what I have learned from noble Lords who have passed by my desk in the Library over the past week or so. Bees measure distance by the way the hairs on their backs flatten as they fly from the hive; they prefer trumpet-shaped flowers; they are colour-specific and will not go from a blue flower to a red one to a yellow, and they dance on the hive to direct their fellows to nectar-rich areas. And my favourite fact: it was one of St David’s missionaries who introduced bees to Ireland in the sixth century.
Lastly, there is also, perhaps, much to be learned from the way bees organise themselves. The cleric and philosopher Samuel Purchas, in his Theatre of Political Flying Insects, written in 1625, observed:
“Bees are political creatures, and destinate all their actions to one common end; they have one common habitation, one common work; all work for all, and one common care … ”.
That is not a bad dictum for this House.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist, for securing this debate. I am in awe of the research that she has carried out for this debate. She confessed to me a few months ago that she did not know quite what was in her mind when she put her name down for this debate: she did not seem to know very much about bees, but she certainly may have more than made up for it in the last little bit. I will have to go around my garden eradicating rhododendron ponticum, which I have just planted in large numbers. I had no idea that it produced poisonous honey for my bees. I am also looking forward to contributions from other noble Lords.
We have been building up to a bee event on a biannual basis since I joined the House eight years ago. In fact, I decided that my maiden speech was going to be on bees—that is the arrogance one has when one first comes into this House—and then, of course, I discovered that that did not actually mean that there was going to be a debate ready for me to speak in. I had to adapt what I wanted to say to a rather esoteric discussion about special education, although I was rescued by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, who very kindly saw what I was trying to get at and came to my rescue and said some nice things about my speech. It is best forgotten.
I should declare, of course, that I am a beekeeper myself, although in truth I am a bit nervous about that name “beekeeper” since it implies some sort of role that I certainly do not have in relation to my bees. Bees are independent: they may well be on one purpose and a model for one aspect of this House, but they certainly do not do what I want them to do. I think that they keep me, rather than that I keep them and I am very nervous about them. I have a very good breed at the moment, however—they come from Buckfast Abbey, but I do not think that that means anything about their religious behaviour, although their Irish connection is very strong—and they are a joy to work, or were a joy to work until I moved them two years ago, whereupon they turned vicious. I have been stung so badly in the last couple of years that I was almost at the point of giving it up, but I went back there last weekend in view of this debate and went through them comb by comb, the sort of thing that only a very dedicated beekeeper can do. I did not get stung and had a wonderful time and they are thriving. I am delighted to report that to your Lordships’ House, and I am sure they will want to have some honey when it comes later in the year.
My neighbours in West Cork, though, have not been so lucky. That area was very badly hit by the storms. Storm Ophelia made landfall about a mile from where we have a house and a number of local farmers and others who have bees have lost a huge number of hives and most of their stock over this period. Indeed, I have been trying to find a nucleus to build up my bee collection but I have not been able to find anybody who has anything for sale this year. I just have to hope that a swarm appears in the next few weeks, although it is very late in the season for that.
There are 25,000 to 30,000 beekeepers in this country, a significant number of people. It is interesting, however, that we have a very different model of industry here compared to the rest of Europe. In most of Europe beekeeping is carried out by professional beekeepers and bee farmers. We have a slightly different situation compared with the EU as a whole, but it is broadly the same pattern: we do not produce nearly enough honey to meet our demands. Just think of the savings we could make if we could generate more activity around beekeeping and more of our own honey.
It is a very strange industry. There are a few industrial producers in this country—I think the figures were given by the noble Baroness—and a very large number of amateur keepers like me. Their numbers have grown in the last two years. Indeed, we have seen a surge of interest in urban beekeeping, as I think has been referenced. It is good to hear that the drones of the Garrick Club have a hive on their roof. I hope that they are more liberal with their use of the honey from the women who are doing all the work there than they are with their guests. I will pass on quickly from that.
As has been said, honey bees are a very important part of our agriculture: some £650 million per annum. But the survey that was recently carried out by the BBKA—the British Beekeepers Association—shows that the amount of honey per hive has decreased again this year, down some 10% from last year. We are worried about the number of hives, mainly because of the bad weather, as I said. Taken with the weather, we have to think about pests and diseases, loss of habitat, and possible pesticide effects, all of which have been mentioned. It is a very interesting and complex matrix. I look forward to the Minister’s comments when he responds. I do not expect him to wave a magic wand over the weather—I will forgive him that—but it is worth pointing out that the sort of climate we are experiencing at the moment is very bad for bees. They can cope with cold and are not too bad in snow, but they do not do wind and rain because it gets into the hives and they cannot get rid of it. It is really problematic for them when we have the sort of weather we are having in this period.
On health, there are still real problems with how we deal with our bees and how we provide effective medicine. The Varroa mite, which was the subject of a lot of discussion in the previous bee debate, has not increased very significantly. It seems that we are able to cope with it, but we cannot treat for the foulbroods, which are difficult to eradicate. There is a disease called nosema, which is likely to become more prevalent because the medicines used for it have been withdrawn.
The questions I have for the Minister are first on neonicotinoids, or neonics, which is easier to say. The Government are to be congratulated on their decision. At the time of the previous debate there was some doubt about whether the Government would follow the evidence, but it is very good that they have done so. The evidence was very convincing. I accept that there are problems about switching to other insecticides, but we should do what we can. Although the Government’s decision is welcome there is still a problem because these chemicals are not completely banned. They can be used to treat sugar beet and seed for winter cereals. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us whether any further work is being done on that and whether there will be action should the evidence prove it to be necessary.
Agricultural production has a significant impact on bees by affecting the quality and diversity of habitat within the landscape. I hope the Minister will say something about what the Government can do to provide more support for those who wish to make fields a little more readily accessible for bees and pollinators. Is there any research they can do about what type of pollination is the most helpful? For example, it is widely thought that tomatoes are fertilised by bees, but in fact it is bumble bees that do that job. It is done by vibration, not transmission through the pollen. It is important that we better understand what goes on when pollination takes place.
Agri-environment schemes have great potential and I hope there will be some news on them. More generally, habitats around the country need to be thought about as not just passive areas of land, but important forage and nesting resources for bees. Could the Government think about ways to strengthen protection for the sites by designating more with priority habitats of bees, perhaps reforming the environmental impact assessment regulations and improving cross-policy co-ordination to deliver stronger benefits for bees over the whole landscape?
There is a link here to planning. Maybe the planning system should also be looked at carefully to see whether it has sufficient protection for bees and their habitats. At the moment we think only in terms of houses and infrastructure, but surely it is important to make sure that we have the right approach in law to how we deal with the insects that we rely on. Some bees are recognised as national conservation priorities but, as a group, bees have received very little formal monitoring and conservation effort. I hope that the biodiversity strategy and the other work being done on long-term thinking in the department will allow bees to feature. I read the documents that are available at the moment, but they do not seem to mention bees in particular. I look forward to the comments of the Minister.
Finally, I talked about the workforce involved in bees. It is largely amateur and elderly, I fear, although there is a growth in the number of younger people who work with candles and other artefacts that come from bees. Are the Government thinking of creating a statutory beekeeper register, which might at least give us some fix on what the issue is? Are there any schemes, such as apprenticeships, that might be available in this area? Perhaps the Minister would think about that.
My Lords, first I warmly congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, on her very informative and excellent introduction. It is wonderful that she has such an appropriate name for this debate. She outlined really well that it is a toxic mix of habitat loss, parasites and pesticides that is affecting our bee population. The only thing to be said for the drastic reduction in some of the numbers is that it has motivated government and the public—and, indeed, industry, the farmers—into doing far more to counteract whatever it is that is affecting bees so adversely. Because it is a toxic mix, it has been very complex to establish which part of that mix, whether it is the pesticides, the habitat loss or the parasites, is responsible for the decline in which species.
The thing that continues to slightly confuse our debate is the terminology. We use the term “bees” when we mean honey bees, but we also use the term generically, as the noble Baroness said. There are 250 species of bee in the UK: 25 are bumblebees, one is the honey bee, and there are 224 species of solitary bees. Of course, the solitary bees are equally important in pollination and they have suffered something like a 50-year decline in diversity. Undoubtedly, a lot of that is due to habitat loss. Particular bees focus on particular plants, and I say to the Minister that it is important to bear this in mind when developing wildlife corridors. Wild flowers, as he knows, are not just generic. We sometimes find in seed packets in garden centres that just say “Wild Flowers”, but specific plants grow in specific geologies and at particular altitudes.
I think it is widely accepted that bees are declining—but, in fact, according to the last House of Commons research, 7.7% of species were said to be declining, 12.6% were stable and 0.7% were increasing, yet we know nothing about 79% of these bee species because the research has not been done yet. I particularly welcome the fact there is going to be research across the EU, known as PoshBee—it was mentioned on “Farming Today” this morning—looking at exactly what is affecting all these various pollinators. I congratulate the Government on endorsing the proposal to ban the outdoor use of the three sorts of neonics. Research is undoubtedly very important. We have organisations in this country, such as the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the Natural Environment Research Council, all applying their minds to it.
I hope and expect that when the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, comes to speak, he will be a bit less excoriating than he has been in the past about green groups and a bit less defensive of neonicotinoids, because the fact is that research proves that there are a lot of unknowns in this area—so it is quite right that these questions are asked. I know it makes for lively reading on his blog to be dismissive of many pieces of research that have been done, but I think that probably, as somebody who has done so much work in the area of science, and exploring it, he can accept that there is a lot still to be explored in this area.
I welcome the fact that there is going to be a new Bill on a national network of pollinator corridors. We definitely need species-rich wildflower habitats. I am sure that many noble Lords speaking in this debate will have read The Moth Snowstorm by Michael McCarthy, in which he makes the very good point that we really need to engage our natural wish to nurture nature and our natural propensity to take joy in nature. That will be far more motivating to people than sustainable development policies. I am not dismissing the policies, because there is a need for government action and policies, but there is a huge need for public motivation.
For example, we could say that it is not just pesticides but herbicides that are a threat to pollinators. Weed killing can take out all sorts of the food elements that a bee will depend on. There is also the close mowing of lawns, because clover in a lawn is a rich source of nectar, as are dandelions and thistles. I am worried about the herbicides which wipe out every bit of food that a pollinator might hope to find. Lawns made of Astroturf are the final straw: they will not provide anything for any pollinator. So there is lots of action that the public can take. I have seen many designs of bee hotels, which are really interesting. I am looking forward to building one over the summer out of pellets, old flowerpots and so on.
When it comes to farmers, there is also much going on that we can welcome. The Crop Protection Association sent a helpful briefing on its BeeConnected scheme, which talks about how the responsible farmer or grower will be obliged to tell beekeepers when they are going to spray. That is a great step forward that will allow beekeepers to take the necessary precautions—what about the 249 other species that are not looked after by a beekeeper? They will be out and about, soaking up the pesticide. That is an issue on which I hope the Government and industry will work together and will think about.
In vineyards, which I know a bit about as I have one, pyrethrum use is allowed under the organic regime but it is actually more toxic than many of the modern mite-focused sprays. Again, organic regulations need to be looked at to make sure that they are as up to date and pollinator-friendly as possible.
Finally, I ask the Minister for some clarification about protection for local wildlife sites, which will be really important in this pollinator corridor work. Protection status was called into question under the new planning policy framework. When I asked a Question on this—HL7636—the Answer said that the Housing Minister had written to all Peers and MPs clarifying protections for local wildlife sites. Well, I have not had a letter. Perhaps other noble Lords have. Perhaps the Minister can say that he will make this letter publicly available and clarify that the Government do not intend to change planning protection for local wildlife sites.
My Lords, like others, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Bloomfield on securing this debate and join her in paying tribute to the Hymenoptera and other pollinators. I declare my interest as the owner of a farm. Actually, this is a bit of a humble brag of a declaration because I am proud of having created, at my own expense, the largest new wildflower meadow in the north-east of England—about 50 acres. Last week it was a riot of honey bees, bumble bees, solitary bees, hoverflies and butterflies, feasting on vetch, trefoil, daisies, buttercups and other flowers. It was indeed, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said, a blooming field. There you go.
Our farm and others that I know have also started creating flower-rich margins around arable fields as part of high-level stewardship schemes. That is my first point: farmers are doing a lot for pollinators these days, certainly much more than they once did. That is a huge change from 10 years ago, and one on which we can surely build.
Yet we are told that bees especially are in peril and that farmers are, at least in part, the cause of that peril. Is this true? Let us start with honey bees. Globally, there have never been more hives of honey bees; there are about 90 million in the world compared with about 60 million 50 years ago. In Europe and the UK, too, we are near to a record number of hives. There are of course continuing problems with Varroa mites, as the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said, and Nosema and other pests, but there is no evidence of a decline in honey bees. It is true that there was colony collapse disorder 12 years ago, mostly in the United States, but it was a brief episode and is now reckoned to have been something to do with diseases or pests, not farming.
Presumably, that is why the opponents of neonicotinoids stopped talking about honey bees a few years ago and started talking more about wild bees. But where is the evidence that any decline in wild bees is recent or related to pesticides rather than to land management and habitat change? One recent study found that wild bees declined significantly before 1990 because of agricultural intensification but that the decline has since ceased or possibly reversed. I quote from that paper:
“these negative trends became substantially less accentuated during recent decades, being partially reversed for certain taxa (e.g. bees in Great Britain and Netherlands)”.
Even the 2016 Centre for Ecology and Hydrology modelling study by Woodcock et al showed that the most prolific crop pollinators among wild bees, which are the bumble bees, are not declining and some are increasing.
I am sure the Minister is aware of an important study published in Nature in 2015 that was conducted by 58 researchers across five continents. It found that,
“the species that are the dominant crop pollinators are the most widespread and abundant species in agricultural landscapes in general”.
It found that only about 2% of wild bee species are responsible for 80% of the crop pollination performed by wild bees. These are of course the wild bees that would come most into contact with neonicotinoid pesticides, yet the study finds that these 2% of species are actually ones that are thriving. Is the Minister also aware that leaf-cutter bees, which should be especially vulnerable to neonics because they eat leaves and because they are non-social, are thriving in neonic-treated canola fields in North America? Indeed they are used as commercial pollinators in western Canada.
I turn to the neonicotinoid issue. Neonicotinoids can kill bees; of course they can. They are insecticides—the clue is in the name—so lab studies showing that they can kill or harm bees are beside the point. Every farming system, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said, uses pesticides, even organic systems—neem oil, nicotine, spinosad, pyrethrin and copper sulphate are all used on organic farms. So it is a question of which insecticides do the least harm to non-target insects such as bees. Here, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, said, neonicotinoids have one advantage over their main alternative, pyrethroids: they are almost always used as seed dressings, not sprays, so only an insect that eats the plant gets poisoned. When I raised some of these points with an official from Defra, I was told that the persistence of neonics in the soil is a new worry that we have to take into account. However, I have researched the literature and can find no evidence to support that point, so I would be grateful if the Minister could enlighten me on it. Is he also aware that some 18 major field studies and nine review articles published over 10 years have overwhelmingly shown that under realistic conditions neonicotinoids have no effect on honey bees at the hive level, and that the EU’s bee guidance document was effectively constructed so that tier 3 field studies, which show no negative effects at the hive level, have been discounted or dismissed?
On my own farm we stopped using insecticide sprays almost entirely after the introduction of neonicotinoid seed dressings. We also stopped using slug pellets because, again, neonics are good for protection against slugs. We may now have to go back to using both to prevent slug damage and to prevent barley yellow dwarf virus, which is spread by aphids. If so, we will be using pyrethroids, which are probably worse. Even the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety—ANSES—says that of the 130 uses for neonics, 89% will be replaced by other pesticides, often pyrethroids. It said that it,
“has not been possible to identify substances or families of chemical substances that generally have a less unfavourable risk profile than neonicotinoids”.
In other words, the replacements will all be worse than the environment. So please will my noble friend the Minister promise that a proper unbiased study is done to check whether the ban on neonics makes things better or worse for bees? As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said, we just do not know the answer to that.
Of course, the environmental movement would prefer that we used fewer insecticides altogether—and so would I—so why on earth does it still oppose the introduction of genetically modified crops? That is the one proven way in which to farm with fewer insecticides and still produce competitive yields. Twenty-five years of increasing GMO use all around the world has shown that they unambiguously and undeniably reduce insecticide use. Wherever the Bt GMO technology has been applied, in maize, cotton, soybean and canola, it results in less insecticide use. We now know that we made a huge mistake in listening to the greens on this issue; they shot themselves and us in the foot. Had we developed insect-resistant GMO wheat, by now we would be using far fewer insecticides in the British countryside. Why are not the Government saying that out loud? Why is not Buglife saying it out loud? Why is not the organic movement saying this?
Since others have done so, I end with a little bee story. I was sitting on a river bank about a month ago and noticed that there was a very big colony of solitary mining bees digging holes in the bank. I lay down and watched them for a happy hour in the sunshine; then I noticed that there were also some very pretty little wasps hanging around—like ordinary wasps, except smaller and with red legs and red antennae. They were not digging their own holes but just hanging around the mining bee holes. I went back and looked them up and found that it was not a wasp but a bee called the nomad cuckoo bee. It sneaks in when the mining bee is not looking and lays an egg which eats the mining bee baby and then takes over the hole. I do not know what lesson I am drawing from that for your Lordships’ House—none, I hope.
My Lords, I must confess that a smile plays on my lips as we are about to enjoy this debate with Brexit raging around our ears, and we discuss the most calming and generous of insects. I congratulate my noble friend on tabling the debate. It is also appropriate that we should be discussing this in National Insect Week, which was opened yesterday by the Royal Horticultural Society. So well done to my noble friend—very good timing and top of the class, as you always were at school, of course.
Over the last 10 years or more, I have been a keen but not always diligent beekeeper. As someone who is not noted for his patience, beekeeping is for me a life lesson in how to control one’s impatience and intolerance. Some people say that my best look is when I am behind the visor of my beekeeping unit. It all started when I suffered from hay fever and was told that, if you eat your own honey, you do not suffer any more. How true that was—it immediately vanished when I produced my first crop. I am a proud garden owner and part-time gardener, and the work of bees and cross-pollination of my plants has had a splendiferous effect on my garden, for which I appreciate their presence.
For those of us at the moment who are, shall we say, tense with Brexit, what a marvellous life example bees and their colonies give to us. Their hierarchy is somewhat awesome—and the discipline of their roles and the energy and productivity of these insects is quite remarkable, whether it is the solitary bee, like the bumble bee, or those that form colonies, whether they be masonry bees, of which I have many, or the common honey bee. For the honey bee, what a life it is. The drone is basically a lazy man who, for a short period, impregnates the queen and sits back with the equivalent of a big cigar and a deckchair and lets the women do the rest of the work. The worker bees are, of course, infertile. They create the hives and make the honey. Twice a year, if I am lucky, I can take honey off my hive; I hope to do it this Friday. I will put it into my new electric spinner—the lesson is always have an electric spinner—and the fruits of my labour, and theirs, will be satisfied.
As noble Lords across the Chamber have enunciated so beautifully, it is not as easy as it seems. It has been a struggle for these great insects. My own hives have suffered from Varroa mites and were reduced from five to two. Happily, we are now back up to three. The problem of pesticides from neighbouring farmers has been mentioned. My noble friend Lord Ryder told me, as I came into the Chamber earlier today, that he had found 24 bumble bee nests in his neighbourhood destroyed by the badger. If you live in the countryside, those are the perils for the bee.
I am happy to see that the population, including mine, is on the increase again. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about preservation and the Government’s plans for helping us humble beekeepers to create the most beautiful and delicious product.
I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, for the opportunity to speak on the wonderful subject of bees. I came across her by chance in the Tea Room and she said she was going to speak on this subject. I was particularly upset that day by some acerbic remarks in a Brexit debate and I thought this would be a gentle outing. I then suddenly realised that I did not know much about bees. I am afraid I have been rather a bore to my friends, and people who are not necessarily my friends, by stopping everybody and asking, “What do you know about bees?” I went to one or two authoritative sources. My former noble friend Lord Taverne introduced me to the head of the staff who look after insects at the Natural History Museum. He started our conversation off with the rather alarmist term—I think it is American—“colony collapse disorder”, which made me rather nervous.
I was also nervous about, but looking forward to hearing, the speech by the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley. I was rather fearing it. I do not know why—perhaps I had been listening to the wrong people. Yet I was vastly reassured by it; it dispelled a lot of my fears. I was in my club today and sat next to a young man whose father I know. He has recently come from Nottingham University, from where he has a very good degree in biology. I asked him, like I ask everybody: “What do you know about bees”? He said that he had learned, either at university or not, the alarming fact that the human race could survive a kind of Armageddon of bees for 50 years—the noble Baroness mentioned that. He added that there had been an article on this subject in Science Today some time ago which said that the world would then be a better place for non-humans, because we are the biggest polluters. That is an interesting thought.
I am a great honey eater. I eat it in the morning with a bit of turmeric. For those who have not heard of that fine spice, it is excellent with honey and porridge. The noble Lord, Lord Marland, alluded to the health properties of honey, particularly that grown in one’s vicinity. I understand that there is a reason why that is better for health—if you can get it—than relying on honey bought in a shop. I was convinced by an article written some years ago by Rose Prince, the excellent food writer in the Daily Telegraph. She wrote very informatively about honey and bees. I wish somebody else would do something similar now, so that people can have some of their fears allayed, like I have today, and learn about the health effects of honey.
I am told that the throat in particular is an area of the body which, if you have problems, is improved with honey. However, it should be crystallised honey. I understand that in crystallised honey the water content is reduced, but that is something you can do yourself—you can also buy it, but it will be more expensive because it has been done for you. Then, all that you do, rather than put it into your cocoa at night, is take a lump of the crystallised honey and put it in your throat and swill it around a bit, and your throat discomfort is gone, I am told. So I have learnt a great deal—I do not suppose many people will learn a great deal from my speech—and I am very glad to be able to speak in the debate today.
Initially, my major interest in the bee was from having been an arts spokesman in the House who is still rather keen on the arts. The bee is an astonishing creature, in that over centuries it has caught the imagination of rulers and others. One thinks of Napoleon, who chose the bee as his emblem because he thought that Charlemagne, who was his great guide before he became the emperor that he did, had a great fixation with the bee. Napoleon did not understand the image; it was in fact the cicada that Charlemagne had.
Actually, if you look up bees on your computer or iPad, you can get the most wonderful definitions in works of art and so forth. One of the most remarkable escutcheons is that of the Barberini family, one of whom became Pope Urban VIII. Although he was always at war with Galileo, he was nevertheless a force for good. The Barberini family, who were Tuscan by origin, became part of baroque Rome, and there were many reproductions, in carvings and so on, of the honey bee. The honey bee lends itself to gilding, particularly in the baroque world, because it has a remarkable shape, with remarkable eyes. It was also taken up by many others—in ancient Greece, and also in ancient Egypt I understand, there was the same fascination with the shape and the nature of the bee in terms of creating images.
Having said that, I do not think that I have anything very informative to say, other than to thank the noble Baroness for allowing me to spout on like this, which I rarely do these days—I think I am too old but, since I can ride a motorbike, surely I can get up in the House and talk about something from time to time.
I am very cheered by the reception that I got there—whether it was honest or not, or just good banter, I do not know. I am very much for banter, particularly since the House was advised to discourage banter among the staff. I actually rang up the company involved, which had been consulted at great cost, which said that banter must be discouraged. Mainly—I do not know why I have gone on this bifurcation of subject—it is discouraged “Not because of what you say in your banter, but because of what people may overhear and understand from it”. Apparently, that is why the staff are not supposed to banter. I encourage them to banter, because I think they are happier in doing their work and we have a wonderful staff.
Having said that, I would just like to say thank you very much for giving me the chance to speak briefly on this subject. I have really enjoyed it, and I will come back at future dinner break debates.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland. I thoroughly enjoyed his speech, which widened our debate hugely. We are all learning so much this afternoon. I am trying to work out which is the better image of him: eating his honey or riding his motorbike. It was a tremendous contribution.
I, too, compliment the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, on tabling this debate. Again, I learned an awful lot from her. I think she will learn a little from me, but I learned an awful lot from her. I am now anxious about rhododendron ponticum, which I fear I have quite a bit of as well. Hers was a comprehensive coverage of the topic and set the scene wonderfully well for the debate today. If the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, is looking for a swarm, he knows the old adage: a swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon, but a swarm of bees in July is not worth a fly—so he will have to get cracking if he is to get his swarm organised.
I cannot tell you what joy I found as a schoolboy in simply understanding and marvelling at the life history of Apis mellifera, the honey bee. It was explained to me just once in great detail. I was immediately enthralled and have never forgotten it. The role of workers, drones and queens, the mystery that is royal jelly, and how workers run the hive, find their food and communicate with each other is all quite magical.
This leads to the crucial part they play in our lives: for the most part unnoticed and unheralded. Without their pollinating efforts, our fruit and vegetable production, which has been touched on several times today, would be devastated and our world would be a very different and darker place.
Our bees are constantly under threat, and it is vital that we do all we can to make everyone aware of their importance and vulnerability, in both countryside and town. I commend all the organisations such as Buglife, which has already been mentioned, involved in this work.
Although there has been an overall decline in different kinds of bees over the past 50 years, recent trends in our managed population are better. The Varroa mite did terrible damage to our hives in the 1990s, but now the number of hives and the number of colonies is significantly increasing. I commend the Government on their positive approach to this issue. Both the present Secretary of State and our Minister are showing real understanding, concern and readiness to act.
I particularly commend the Government’s national pollination strategy, which brings together all those people and organisations able to influence the landscape and habitats, which are so precious. I am also glad that we will be tougher on the use of neonicotinoids—although, after the contribution of the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, I am a little wiser and will give it some more thought. But I am sure it is right to be tougher on them and I firmly believe in the precautionary principle.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, mentioned a campaign called BeeConnected, run by the Voluntary Initiative, which in turn is funded by the agricultural sector. Time does not allow me to elaborate, but, put simply, it is a system that allows crop sprayers automatically to notify beekeepers that spraying will take place where they have hives to allow them to take appropriate action. To me, that sounds very sensible.
We must be—and I know that the Government are—ever alert to the threat of invasion by dangerous species. In trees, we keep a wary eye on Xyllella fastidiosa and the emerald ash borer, which threaten our shores. We have already had an incursion by the Asian hornet, which eats bees. Fortunately, so far, it has been kept at bay.
I end, therefore, as someone who loves both trees and bees, by telling your Lordships that the tree bumblebee, which has the wonderful Latin name Bombus hypnorum, has arrived here under its own steam and has spread quite rapidly. It does not appear to be damaging any of our native bee population, and it is a very effective pollinator—so, as far as I am concerned, it is very welcome.
My Lords, I rise to speak in the gap and shall be very short, perforce, not least because I have been threatened with pain of death by my Front Bench. I apologise for speaking in the gap; it is only because I am so hopelessly inefficient. I lost my password for the Whips website, which I needed to put my name down for this debate, took part in the debate yesterday and voted, and then arrived 30 seconds after 6 pm, when they had closed the speakers list for today. I declare an interest in that I have a diverse, small mixed farm in south Leicestershire, and I will talk about my experience. I do not want to be self-congratulatory, but it paints a relatively good picture of what can be done if one cares about the environment.
When I was at school, some 50 years ago, I had a hive of bees. I was scared of them and I was a hopeless beekeeper, and the result was that they all died, so I did not think that I would try that one again. But I now have six hives, I think—the number varies a bit—on my farm, which are kept by a local retired GP. He says that it is the best place he has hives, and he has them scattered around south Leicestershire. I also have bumble bees—humble bees—masonry bees and solitary bees in abundance. Do not ask me about species, because I am not an expert, but there are stacks of them: all sorts of different types buzz around. As a result, we also have a lot of insects, which means that we have fantastic birdlife. We have a lot of swallows at the moment and—something which particularly pleases me—a pair of curlews, which I think may have chicks in a hayfield, because they were bombing me and calling at me last weekend.
The question I wish to put is: why is this? The reason is that we have a very diverse habitat—it is a mixed farm. We have some maize and winter wheat at the moment, and we also have largely grass. I planted stacks of trees and hedges—courtesy, I might say, of the British taxpayer via the CAP, and agri-environment schemes. I congratulate this and other Governments and, indeed, the European Union, on their encouragement of agri-environment schemes, because that has enabled me to plant trees and hedges. I also go round on fallow—which used to be called set-aside—scattering wildflower seeds like they are going out of fashion. I am delighted to say that, after about a decade, I have established good cowslip populations all the way down the drive. My children laugh at me, but I am thrilled about it. The reason I am able to do it is because of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme and the HLS, in which I now find myself. My reason for saying this is that we need to realise that it is not all gloom and doom. There are lots of bees, and we can make productive farmland environmentally friendly and good for conservation. That is my message today.
Before I sit down, after my four minutes, with regard to neonics, of course we should reduce pesticides and herbicides—that is sensible. Farmers want to do that, because it is rather expensive to use herbicides and pesticides. I am not sure that neonics are not better than the alternative. My neighbour has a huge field of rape on the other side of our stream, which has certainly been treated in the past with neonics, and yet the bees flourish. We should rely on empirical evidence rather than emotion in this case. Finally, nitrate fertilisers have to a large extent reduced the diversity in our grassland and our fields. We should look at reducing their use, because I can see that where people have used nitrate fertilisers there are no longer the wildflowers that I spend my life trying to encourage.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, on the debate, and I particularly enjoyed her stories about bees. I point out to her that lime pollen makes bees drunk, so they die happy, and that once a swarm is out of sight of the person whose hive it came from, if you can collect it, it is yours, and you can decide where to put it. I have benefited from that, because my gardener found one in someone else’s garden and brought it to me; they did not want it anyway. I too am a beekeeper, and I keep Welsh Black bees, not Buckfast bees. They came and squatted in an empty hive. I am very pleased with them because they are very strong.
It has been lovely to hear stories from fellow beekeepers. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, should get a new bee suit. If he is being stung so often, it obviously has holes in it. The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, was right about hay fever—the noble Lord, Lord Marland, mentioned it as well—but the honey must be raw and not overfiltered or heat-treated, so that you get the pollen from your local garden. It certainly works for me as well. By the way, I am very jealous of the noble Lord, Lord Marland, and his electric honey extractor. I am afraid that I have the manual kind. When it is time to harvest my honey, I have to call on the strong right arm of my husband, my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford. I think that he will be wondering whether I am going to raid the family coffers and buy an electric extractor. His strong right arm would certainly be grateful.
As a beekeeper, I am well aware of the need to conserve all our important pollinators as well as our honey bees and wild bees, many species of which are endangered. The mouth parts of different insect species are adapted to reach the nectar in different-shaped flowers, so we need the whole range of insects to pollinate our crops. I am afraid that wind will not cut it because of the shape of the flowers.
I must congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, on his species-rich wildflower meadow and the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, on his cowslips, because they are important. I want to mention the many groups of volunteer gardeners such as my daughter and her colleagues in Altrincham in Bloom, who, with permission, have sown species-rich beds of wildflowers and other flowering plants in public places in the town. These have provided not only beauty for residents but a corridor of forage for a wide variety of bees and other pollinators. Such voluntary activity is to be encouraged and not discouraged, as happens when council workmen strim down the lot. I hope that most local authorities will encourage and co-operate with this sort of voluntary group who give so much of their time in the interests of our pollinators. It is also important that verges of major roads and motorways are left to flower and not strimmed to within an inch of their lives at the earliest opportunity. Does the Department for Transport have a policy on this?
Gardeners can play their part. As a keen gardener myself, I have a wide variety of plants in my garden. In fact, it has often been commented that I have less of a garden and more of a plant collection, but a wide variety of plants is important because of the need for a wide variety of pollinators.
Of course, beekeepers make a big contribution to pollination by protecting honey bees. Beekeeping is an excellent hobby, combining biology, physiology, history, horticulture and pharmacy. However, it is a big commitment and there is a great deal to learn. I have made some terrible mistakes in the past, from which I hope I have learned. It makes sense for new beekeepers to join local beekeeping associations and make use of the courses they offer and the advice so freely given. I am very grateful to my own bee mentors, Lloyd Roberts and Dell Hannaby. Does Defra provide supportive funding for these groups that are so valuable, particularly to new beekeepers?
Bee inspectors provided by the National Bee Unit are important, too, because they check the health of bees and help prevent the spread of disease. They also give good advice, as I can testify. It is sad to see that Defra, which runs the NBU at arm’s length, is not replacing bee inspectors. I heard recently from a bee inspector in Wiltshire that when he retires at the end of this year Wiltshire may not have an inspector. This is very dangerous for the health of bees in the county—we have heard all about the various diseases that are rampant. Can the Minister tell me whether this situation is happening in other areas of the country and what, if anything, is being done to replace these valuable officers?
One of the biggest hazards for bee colonies is the use of certain pesticides. The Government’s code of practice, which is due to be updated shortly—perhaps the Minister can tell us when—states that certain pesticides which may harm bees will be labelled as “harmful” or “high risk”. The person responsible for a spray operation is obliged to tell local beekeepers, or the British Beekeepers Association’s local spray liaison officer, 48 hours before the use of an insecticide at certain times of the year, giving beekeepers time to take the necessary precautions. The SLOs act as go-betweens, informing beekeepers when the farmer is going to spray.
However, this process has not always been effective, so a new initiative, which has already been mentioned by two noble Lords, has been set up by responsible farmers and growers. It is called BeeConnected and aims to help reduce pollinator exposure to insecticides by alerting beekeepers electronically before spraying. As my noble friend Lady Miller mentioned, BeeConnected has been developed in conjunction with the BBKA to replace the need for SLOs and instead inform beekeepers directly. It is a simple process whereby the person responsible for the spraying registers on the website and identifies the fields using Google Maps. The system automatically informs local beekeepers when someone intends to spray a particular field. Beekeepers who have plotted the location of their hives on the system will then receive a notification ahead of a spray event. This is as an excellent initiative, and I intend to go on the website and register my hives.
Such initiatives are important in the light of the risk to bees if we exit the EU and are no longer bound by the ban on neonics and other substances, unless the Government take similar action. Can the Minister assure us that the Government will continue to protect our pollinators if, unfortunately, we leave the EU?
Finally, the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, made a point about how crop-pollinating insects are thriving. If we grow more crops to feed the world’s growing population, it occurs to me that we are providing more food for their pollinators, so I am not surprised that they are thriving. I wonder whether the noble Viscount agrees. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, for giving us the opportunity to debate this issue and to all noble Lords who have contributed their considerable expertise and understanding. Like many other noble Lords, I have learned an enormous amount from listening to this debate. It seems to me that in this Chamber we are doing more than our fair share to nurture the habitats and the hives of our insect population.
It feels as if policymakers are having to relearn the importance of biodiversity and ecodependence, which was known instinctively to previous generations of our forebears, who would probably have known that rhododendrons were poisonous and other things that we are having to learn again, but so be it. Nevertheless, the reality is beginning to sink in. Defra’s research tells us what we can see for ourselves: that the number of insects in our fields and gardens is dropping, and that that decline includes the rather crucial pollinators. As noble Lords have said, there are a number of reasons for this decline. Disease, habitat loss, climate change and pesticides have all played their part.
Noble Lords have described the fantastic communication and navigation systems that bees have, but a simple change in a habitat can disrupt a bee’s memory and route finders and prevent it reaching sources of pollen. Very simple things in the ways bees operate can make an enormous difference to their effectiveness. This matters not just for those of us who care about the environment, but because the vast majority of food grown for consumption worldwide is pollinated by bees and other insects and we are rather reliant on them.
First, I pay tribute to the work that Defra is doing to raise awareness of this issue and to put policies in place to tackle the problems. For example, we very much welcome the Government’s announcement of a total ban on neonicotinoids. That has been our party’s policy for some time. We know that when neonicotinoids are used on one crop, residues of the pesticide can be found right across the wider habitat and can remain in the soil for many years. It is our belief that they have undoubtedly contributed to the decline in insect colonies.
Does the Minister recognise that more needs to be done to address the damage caused by pesticides? The fact is that non-neonicotinoid pesticides can cause just as much harm. A much more fundamental review of their use is needed—a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, that we should always follow the science on this. That is why we need to make sure that our knowledge is as up to date as possible so as to apply the latest scientific information. With that in mind, I echo the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley: what has happened to the review of the UK National Action Plan for the Sustainable Use of Pesticides, which George Eustice promised would take place in the first half of 2018? Try as I might, I cannot find any evidence of it, but I am sure that the Minister can put me straight on that.
Secondly, when I looked again at the 25-year environment plan, I was disappointed that there was only a passing reference to bees and pollinators. That is not to say that the Government are not taking the matter seriously but it would be good to see some more joined-up policy development in that area.
I hope that the Minister will agree that in future we should move away from chemical-intensive farming and focus our research on less damaging ways of tackling persistent weeds and pests. We should aim to work with and not against nature’s inherent defences. Whoever commented that pesticides are quite expensive made a very good point. If we can only harness nature’s own defences and the benefits of inherent ecodiversity, we will be all the better for it.
Thirdly, interestingly, a 2016 study in Germany found that bumble-bee abundance and the pollination of wild flowers were higher in urban than in rural areas. Is the Minister able to say whether that is also the case in the UK? If it is, on the one hand it tells an alarming story about what is happening in the countryside, but, on the other, does it not also underline the importance of involving urban gardeners and public authorities in maintaining and cherishing our insect population in urban areas? This is where there is a need for better cross-government thinking on the issue.
The point was made that local authorities can play their part in sowing grass verges and parks with wild flower seeds. I take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, that volunteers, not just local authorities, can play their part in that. The noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, mentioned B-Lines. Plymouth City Council, for example, has taken that idea further and created city-wide bee corridors. The development of those sorts of activities should be welcomed.
Transport authorities also have to play their part. Network Rail needs to recognise its responsibility to maintain biodiversity on its land. So much more could be done to encourage the planting of wild flowers and pollinators on motorway verges, instead of the sterile scrubland that we so often have to tolerate. The Department for International Trade needs to fully understand its responsibility not to facilitate trade with countries that contaminate our food and our pollinators with the use of pesticides which are banned in the EU. How far are these cross-departmental discussions going to ensure that all departments, not just Defra, take the threat to our food supply and our biodiversity seriously?
Finally, on a more upbeat note, I pay tribute to the army of beekeepers in the UK. I take the point made by my noble friend Lord Stevenson that “beekeeper” is probably a misnomer to describe dealing with what is essentially a very independent and untameable species. Nevertheless, the volunteers who keep bees play a very important part in helping biodiversity. Their numbers have doubled in five years, with nearly 130,000 colonies registered in the National Bee Unit’s database, which is to be welcomed. As noble Lords have said, the quality of their honey and their individual flavours is one more reminder of our rich biodiverse heritage, which we squander at our peril. The noble Lord, Lord Marland, made the point that beekeeping, in addition to making a huge contribution, also helps their own sanity.
Will the Minister take this opportunity to say what more his department is doing to support the beekeepers so that wild and honey bees can both play their part in sustaining our unique but dwindling ecosystem for the future?
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Bloomfield is undoubtedly to be congratulated—as your Lordships have done—on securing this debate which, as ever, has been enriched by your Lordships’ own experiences. I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland. Many of us here come to this afresh and have learned a great deal, whether it is through references to literature, history, politics, architecture or health. In particular, I shall take away the practical advice of my noble friend Lord Marland and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, with her Welsh blacks—which I always thought were cattle until this evening—and the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara.
The well-being of bees and other pollinators has been in the public consciousness a great deal over the last few years. People value bees and other pollinators in their own right but they are also vital for the growth of our wildflowers and our crops. I was struck by what the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and my noble friend Lady Bloomfield said about the 1,500 species of pollinators’ annual contribution to UK oil seed, fruit and vegetable crop production, which is, to my understanding, valued at up to £700 million a year.
For many reasons, protecting bees and pollinators is a priority for this Government, and I particularly welcome the generous remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and my noble friend Lord Framlingham about the national pollinator strategy and the wider biodiversity strategy. I, in turn, commend the more than 30 members of our Pollinator Advisory Steering Group—representing conservation groups, farmers, beekeepers and researchers—for their supreme efforts and expertise in helping us to deliver the strategy’s successes thus far.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, referred a great deal to research in her speech and we are fortunate that outstanding scientists help us monitor our collective efforts, including the Pollinator Monitoring and Research Partnership of academics and NGOs which Defra has helped to establish.
My noble friend Lord Ridley and the noble Baroness Lady Miller referred to the numbers. My understanding from the Government’s own indicators is that the confirmed long-term decline in the abundance and distribution of pollinating insects at a national scale has stabilised in recent years. However, we are clearly determined to continue working to see ever more positive results. Local level data collected by volunteers is also available, supported by public bodies, including the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and the research councils.
A number of your Lordships, including my noble friend Lady Bloomfield and the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, referred to our 25-year environment plan setting a goal to create or restore 500,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitat outside the protected site network. What we have heard from my noble friends Lord Ridley and Lord Robathan is an example of two noble Lords giving a personal lead in this matter. Government research shows that increases in pollinator numbers and diversity follow such increases in habitat.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, rightly asked whether the Government are playing their part—an important point, given the considerable land holdings in the public estate. In 2016 the Ministry of Justice created more than 20 hectares of wildflower meadow, and now manages more than 50 sites with native habitats for pollinators. The Ministry of Defence has established areas for pollinators to thrive, collaborating with organisations that include Plantlife, National Parks, the Wildlife Trust and indeed its tenant farmers. These are but two of a range of areas and it is very important that the Government are joined up and that we collaborate as one in a common purpose.
My noble friend Lord Robathan raised the particular issue of agri-environment schemes. Since 2011, these schemes have played a huge role in helping landowners already to establish more than 100,000 hectares of land for restoration to flower-rich habitat. The Countryside Stewardship scheme is often woven into partnership initiatives such as Buglife’s B-Lines, referred to by my noble friend Lady Bloomfield, as well as through farmer clusters, which have been developed by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust with support from Natural England for farmers, landowners, managers and foresters to help develop shared plans for nature. For example, at Martin Down National Nature Reserve, 36 farmers have linked grassland habitats so successfully that since 2016, three new colonies of the scarce small blue butterfly have been established. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust, through working to reintroduce the short-haired bumblebee, has created more than 1,300 flower-rich hectares and has already seen other bumblebee species arriving on site which have not been seen for 40 years. Defra’s “Health and Harmony” consultation on agricultural policy gives us the opportunity to explore how farmers can continue to benefit pollinators and wider biodiversity, and of course contribute to successful food production.
I turn now to honey bees. We are protecting honey bees through the Healthy Bees Plan and the National Bee Unit. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, my noble friend Lord Marland and the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson—the beekeepers of this House—stressed the importance of education. The educational output of the National Bee Unit last year increased to 190 courses, benefiting 9,000 beekeepers. It is aided by partnerships with the British Beekeepers’ Association, the national diploma in beekeeping and the Bee Farmers Association, to whose apprenticeship scheme Defra last year gave around £20,000. The beekeepers of the House may be particularly interested in that. Having sampled it, I can thoroughly recommend what is known as “noble House honey” from the two beehives just along the way here.
I should have said in response to points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, about habitat that, in line with the Housing Minister’s May statement, there is absolutely no intention of watering down wildlife protections. The NPPF is out for consultation and before it is finalised, we will make sure that the protection of local wildlife sites is crystal clear. Defra officials continue to work closely with MHCLG to address the issue, and of course we will share the letter not only with the noble Baroness, but with all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate.
Perhaps I may make a number of points in response to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, on NBU inspections. These are important in helping us to manage pests like the Varroa mite, keep endemic diseases like foulbrood at low levels, and ensure that exotic pests such as the small hive beetle are absent from the United Kingdom.
My noble friend Lord Framlingham quite rightly raised the issue of the Asian hornet. It is an insect for which I have zero tolerance. It requires constant vigilance, immediate containment action and public engagement via the Asian Hornet Watch app. We are absolutely fully seized of the threat of the Asian hornet. There is every opportunity to raise awareness, for example through important collaboration with beekeepers and the app. A number of people have reported their concerns about Asian hornets—thankfully, almost all of them were not Asian hornets—but that collaboration will help us to ensure that we keep Asian hornets at bay and ensure biosecurity at all times.
Many of your Lordships have expressed opinions about pesticides. I thought that my noble friend Lord Ridley would express the views he had. I want to say, candidly, that as far as pesticides, which include insecticides, are concerned, the Government will always base their decisions on the best scientific evidence available. I say to the noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, that we will draw advice from the Health and Safety Executive and the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides.
My noble friend Lady Bloomfield cited a report by the European Commission Joint Research Centre. To my understanding, the report was published in August last year in the peer-reviewed journal Pest Management Studies. The report looked at a small number of sites and crops in Europe and spoke about the increased use of pyrethroids and changes to cultural practices, such as sowing densities or seed-bed preparations. It is worth noting that increases in pyrethroid use have not been detected in national pesticide usage surveys in England. Again, pyrethroids are subject to rigorous regulation and authorised for use only where scientific assessment finds no unacceptable effects on the environment. However, I agree with my noble friend Lord Ridley that we should continue to monitor the consequences of the neonicotinoid ban and help farmers to adapt. I could say much more but it is not possible with the time I have. We will always base our decisions on the scientific evidence that we receive from our expert committee.
With the time I have left, I want to say that Defra’s annual “Bees’ Needs” campaign encourages us all to provide food and a home for pollinators. I will ensure that all noble Lords receive further information on it. This year, with immense gratitude to Shaftesbury plc, London’s Carnaby Street—part of Shaftesbury’s Carnaby urban wildlife haven—will be renamed “Carnabee Street” from 9 to 15 July. I hope to encourage your Lordships to be part of that. Importantly, we will also celebrate the next generation of pollinator protectors such as Saint Alban’s CE Primary School and its “Pollinator Promise”, which asks people to dedicate a square-metre plot to grow plants for pollinators. So far, pupils, parents, neighbours, churches, companies, civil servants and this Minister have signed up.
I very much hope that the message in this exceptional debate from your Lordships, whether from experience of being stung or otherwise, is an example of what pollinators bring to us. I will answer in full the many questions that I have not attended to because of the time limit, because it is important that this is carried forward. Pollinators are an essential part of the ecosystem; they are also essential for food production. I cannot think of a better cause to unite us than this matter. I thank my noble friend Lady Bloomfield for gathering us together in such harmony.
House adjourned at 7.59 pm.