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17 Jun 2008 : Column 198WH—continued

The causes of recent increased honey bee losses are probably not related to currently notifiable diseases. Varrosis, for example, was a notifiable disease until
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2006, when the Government removed it from the list, basically, it seems, because it had become endemic in the population. No solution to it has been found. In fact, matters continue to worsen as the mite develops resistance to the key approved medication. Honey bees are at increased risk from existing diseases, from new threats such as CCD and from exotic pests such as small hive beetle. Despite those heightened risks and unsolved current problems, DEFRA says that it is not prepared to find any more than the current research spend of £200,000 to confront the growing challenges and all their economic and environmental implications.

The BBKA presented a paper, “Beekeeping Research”, to my noble Friend Lord Rooker and the Department last October. It set out the urgency of the matter and proposed a programme of research. Lord Rooker met representatives of the BBKA last December—I was there as well. He flatly turned down the request for funding, notwithstanding the recognition that there were risks to and benefits from honey bees. Development of the programme was initiated by the BBKA when it convened its colloquium on honey bee research in July 2007. Key researchers, DEFRA representatives and research funders were present, and they debated the threats facing bees. There has been huge movement in recognising the problem.

The indicative budget for the research programme outlined in the BBKA documentation is £8 million over five years. The association makes the pertinent point that that is a minute cost when one considers that honey bees will deliver a more than £800 million benefit over that same five-year period, but only if we keep our bees healthy. DEFRA has prepared a bee health strategy, which is designed to help maintain the health of honey bees over the next 10 years. It has 45 pages, and is worth reading. The principle of a strategy is welcome, but it has some shortcomings. It attempts to transfer an ever greater responsibility for bee health to beekeepers themselves but without providing the resources that they need. Many of the diseases affecting honey bees that I referred to earlier are passed from apiary to apiary by bees, and that is outside the control of beekeepers.

Some principles in the strategy are good; for example, better information sharing between the Government and beekeepers—we concur with that. The strategy puts an emphasis on education, which is a major part of the BBKA’s remit, but the document is rather lacking in that it states that action should be evidence-based. The point being made by those who are interested is that we need more evidence and research, and that we need to gather scientific evidence, without which the strategy is doomed to fail. There are too many gaps in the knowledge base, and, of course, it will take several years to implement the strategy once it is finalised.

The issue is what we have to do now. We need to carry out research that will give us a chance to combat the threats. The proposal, with input from key researchers at Sussex university, Rothamsted Research, Warwick Horticulture Research International, Plymouth university and so on, involves short and long-term projects. It seeks to address current problems to do with varrosis and foul brood, not just the threat of CCD and exotic pests. The promising work at Rothamsted and Warwick university to develop a biological control method for varroa, an approach widely used in commercial horticulture
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and once funded by DEFRA, is, sadly, urgently in need of revitalisation. That is one of the largest budget elements in the plan.

In contrast, resolving the legal availability of alternative treatments such as oxalic acid through a more proportional application of the medicines directive requires good will as much as cash. The plan seeks to offset the deficit in bee virus research that has existed since Britain’s leading bee virus researcher had to be made redundant by Rothamsted Research due to lack of follow-on funding from DEFRA.

Other key elements relate to improved husbandry and breeding bees that are better able to resist disease. The BBKA beekeeping research programme offers a real chance to meet those challenges. It requires money, and while all sources of financial support from research trusts, the food industry and beekeeping associations should be tapped—I believe that they are prepared to put money in—it falls to the Government to shoulder the main burden of funding and to make co-ordination possible.

DEFRA has stonewalled the requests of the BBKA, which, as a result, has mounted a public campaign to bring pressure on the Government. This debate is part of that. The BBKA has collected 30,000 signatures in eight weeks, and no doubt that number will increase. It will present its petition to the Government in the autumn during a mass lobby by beekeepers of their MPs. I had a dreadful dream last night of white-coated individuals walking past Downing street with their smokers going. Imagine the panic that that would bring to Whitehall. We have to prevent that kind of thing from happening.

The public have picked up the issue—[Interruption.]

David Taylor (in the Chair): Order. There seems to be a buzz of conversation on the Benches.

Dr. Gibson: Thank you, Mr. Taylor.

It is not surprising, given the extensive coverage on radio and TV and in the press, that the public have taken up the issue. One can hardly pick up a supplement these days without seeing bees sitting on plants and a discussion of the issues. The Government have to wake up to the green political capital that they could gain by finding the rather modest sums required to bring about a far-sighted programme.

I set out the reasons for doing the research: the current unresolved problems with varroa and foul brood, which are akin to foot and mouth disease in bees. We cannot leave it to the Americans to resolve the CCD problem. The US Department of Agriculture has been mandated by the Senate to do its bit—more than $80 million has been directed to CCD research—but we would have to look into co-operation.

Beekeeping practice in the US differs greatly from that in the UK. In this country in particular, there are few commercial beekeepers and they struggle to make a living. The £165 million contribution by Britain’s beekeepers is, basically, provided free of charge by the so-called Great British amateur. No doubt the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) is, for the purpose of this conversation, a classic amateur. This place is full of classic amateurs. I do not mean the House of Commons, of course—I am so sweet—but this country. It has many classic amateurs, and they do a great job. The UK
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and the USA also have climatic and environmental differences, so we have to do our bit, however modest, to help deal with a global problem.

Another element resulting from the structure of UK beekeeping is that it lacks the resources and resolve to rebuild losses quickly when challenged by disease. Varroa arrived in the UK in 1992, and many beekeepers gave up beekeeping in subsequent years. Varroa losses were less dramatic than those that CCD will bring, and we should remember that even then some effective proprietary medications were available. Britain’s beekeepers are great amateurs. They could have played cricket for England—at one time, anyway. They keep bees because of their love of and fascination with the craft. There is not the commercial imperative to restock rapidly that exists in, for example, the USA.

I vehemently call on the Government to provide adequate urgent funding for research into honey bee health. DEFRA has stated that it awaits a business case for increased funding, but, in a sense, the Minister himself has made that case with his acceptance of the £165 million figure. The honey bee population is severely at risk, and we have to do something, or pollination and our agriculture will suffer. That “something” is to carry out research costing £1.6 million per annum in addition to the current budget. That is what we are calling for, and there will be great spin-offs from it. Any well-managed company could develop such research.

We do not need to look for new money. I believe—again, I saw it in a dream—that DEFRA has a contingency fund of £50 million, which the Minister might or might not know about. If there were the will, money could be taken from that fund to prevent an impending disaster. We cannot just wait for it to happen. When the air falls silent and we do not hear those bees a-buzzing in the summer time, there will be a change in many people’s views on the subject, and on why pollination of our crops and the ecological niche that the bee fills in the environment are important.

Every hive lost represents a reduction of some £600 in agricultural output, but that is nothing compared with the greater loss that inaction will cause to our food supply and the natural environment. The Government have said that they will listen more. They listened to us over 10p tax issues. Here is another debate for them to listen to. The issue has massive support from the public. It may not be up front but it is coming. Because we love our environment and our countryside, we ask for the Government’s support.

I will finish with a quote. Everybody who has ever been a scientist always finishes with a quote from a man called Einstein, who, I believe, was once a famous scientist. [Interruption.] A socialist scientist—forgive me for using that word. He stated:

That is a fitting challenge to all of us.

11.19 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), not only on securing this debate—I was
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also trying to secure such a debate but he beat me to it, and I am pleased that he was able to do so—but on his introducing a topic that is not a peripheral matter, although some would wish to describe it as such. It is not a peripheral matter; it is crucial to our horticulture and agriculture and to our natural environment.

My only criticism is of the debate’s full title, “The future of the bee industry”, because although we know that bees are incredibly industrious and that there are some commercial beekeepers, whom I suppose form an industry, the vast majority of the bees in this country are in the hands not of the 300 commercial apiaries, but of the 2,000 amateur beekeepers spread across the country, who are extremely concerned about the future of the bees that they own and love to deal with.

I have a reputation, Mr. Taylor, as perhaps do you, for pursuing quixotic subjects in the House that other hon. Members sometimes do not wish to trespass into. It could be argued that the future and the health of the bee population in this country is one such subject, but it is linked to other matters that I have pursued because, as I argue, if I do not who else will do so? The cider industry is important in my constituency. Apples need pollination and pollination is done by bees, so if the bee population declines, there is concern about the profitability and productivity of a serious industry in my constituency.

As hon. Members have already said, we are not just talking about top fruits, which are a key part of the agricultural and horticultural activity in my constituency, but about wild and semi-wild species such as clovers and vetches, which are the principal nitrogen fixers. Without nitrogen fixers, we do not have fertile soil and the nice green grass that we need to feed our livestock and create our countryside. Bees are crucial to more than is perhaps commonly recognised.

The hon. Gentleman has already pointed out the various threats to the bee population, so there is no need to go into those in detail. He mentioned particularly varroa destructor, which is, as we now know, endemic to the point of no longer requiring notification, but it would appear that we are still no nearer to either a cure or a preventive strategy. He also mentioned nosema apis and nosema ceranae, which is now entering Wales, and he could have added tracheal mites or aethina tumida. He spoke about the syndrome—I think it is a syndrome—of colony collapse disorder in America. I do not think that we have yet seen a problem on a similar scale in this country, but all of us are greatly concerned about that threat, because it does not merely decimate the bee population, but halves or eliminates it. That is of great economic concern as well, because, as the hon. Gentleman correctly said, the value of pollination by bees is estimated at anything up to £200 million, which is a significant sum. That suggests that the Government would be wise to put in a much smaller amount of investment now to save that future loss. That is the critical argument that we have to advance today.

I want to reinforce the points made by the hon. Gentleman and say clearly that research is needed now—not the trickle of funding that we have at the moment, but funding on a scale to match the threat that is recognised by those who know about such things. That needs to be coupled with other measures. We need regulation of imports and effective measures to prevent introduction of further parasitical infestation, whether relating to the importation of queens or other bees. We need to
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consider seriously the control of pesticides. If we are creating pesticide-resistant mite populations or other parasitical organisms, we need to look at the interaction between the use of pesticides and the creation of the degree of resistance that is creating widespread endemic infestation and, perhaps, look again at how we use pesticides in this country.

It is argued in the United States of America that there is a connection between colony collapse disorder and the genetically modified crops being used there. It is possible that disease-resistant crops are creating the circumstances in which that syndrome can develop. We need to know about that.

Dr. Gibson: While the hon. Gentleman is attacking my favourite organisms—GM crops—let me point out that it is also said that mobile phone masts are allegedly implicated in the demise of the bee population in this country. Everything is implicated, but without research, who knows?

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman spent many happy years with me on the Science and Technology Committee. I am not saying that there is such a connection; I am simply saying that there is at least prima facie evidence that ought to be investigated and perhaps the United States is the appropriate place to do it.

We also need to say, on behalf of our agriculture and horticulture, that if we cannot turn back the tide of the reduction in the size of our bee colonies and the bee population, we have seriously to consider how we provide and encourage substitute pollinators, to preserve our fruit industries in at least their present state. That is, to an extent, a counsel of despair—it is certainly not what beekeepers want to hear—but we have to look at both sides of the equation. We have to deal with reversing the trend in the bee population and recognise the need to find ways of maintaining the profitability of our horticultural and agricultural sectors.

John Penrose: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that trying to find alternative insect pollinators is almost certainly a counsel of despair, for two reasons. First, honey bees are far more effective as insect pollinators at various times of the year, particularly in the early part of the season, which can be vital for some crops and wild species. Secondly, they are far more numerous than most other potential insect pollinators. Everyone mentions bumblebees, for example, but whereas there are a few hundred in a typical bumblebee colony, there are 40,000-plus honey bees in a healthy colony. The difference is enormous. Alternatives will probably be far more expensive, by a factor of 10, 100 or even more, than the hon. Gentleman proposes.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is correct. The key points are finding the reason behind the reduction in the bee population, seeing what effective measures can be taken to control infestation or infection, and disseminating the information, both on good husbandry and effective practice, whether veterinary or otherwise, to ensure that the health of the bee population is preserved. That will require investment. That is why we look to the Minister to say not simply that it is nonsense that the bee health programme has been reduced, which has been the line so far from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

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DEFRA has been saying that everything is perfectly good, but it is not. We need a step change in investment in the investigation of bee disease if we are to stem a worldwide phenomenon that is lapping at our doorstep and has the potential to become a crisis, both for the insect population and in economic terms, for some sectors. We need to put in the necessary investment at this stage to stem it and reverse it. I hope that that is what we will hear the Minister say.

11.30 am

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to appear before you, Mr. Taylor.

When discussing this important topic, we should get some of the puns out of the way. You made one earlier, Mr. Taylor. The place is buzzing; it is swarming with interested MPs. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing the debate. His speech was the bee’s knees, and no doubt the Government will be stung by his remarks. I hope that they will not hive off research to the private sector, but I am somewhat piqued by their insufficient action so far. I agree with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) that we must consider other pollinators and so on, but I do not know whether we should call that plan B.

I like bees. They are useful—that is what we are discussing—and I just like them. I do not keep them, although I know that some hon. Members do. One reason why I like them is that they have the good sense to sport the colours of Wolverhampton Wanderers football club. In our garden in Wolverhampton there is a large lime tree, which is almost 100 years old. At the appropriate time at the height of summer—hon. Members will be able to tell me when it is, but it is usually around this time of year—that lime tree is buzzing with bees. They are not our bees, but come from elsewhere, and their number has lessened in recent years. We have lived there for 25 years, and we have noticed that in summer the tree buzzes less than it used to. We used to sit by it, hear it thrumming, and wonder what the sound was. It was hundreds of bees.

On where the UK’s bee industry is going, part of the general picture of adapting to climate change that exercises me greatly is what we do about wildlife. It is important not only to deal with the causes of climate change—CO2 emissions, greenhouse gas emissions and so on—but to face up to the reality that the climate is changing and will continue to do so, with an adverse effect on wildlife and other elements in our country. Bees may be one of the overlooked casualties of the climate change that we are experiencing.

I pay tribute to the work of the British Beekeepers Association, not only for its promotion of the industry, but its research and education of the general public and politicians such as me. I am worried that the UK is losing researchers because there are no jobs for them, and that the considerable expertise that has built up over many years in this country is being eroded because those researchers simply cannot get jobs, so they move to other fields of research or abroad.

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