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17 Jun 2008 : Column 204WH—continued

The Government must focus on research. They cannot solve all the problems facing bees and every industry in this country, but a general rule in any industry is that about 5 per cent. should be spent on research and
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development. We have heard today that bee pollination boosts the value of the top 10 agricultural products by £165 million, and almost all of that gain is free because most beekeepers in this country are amateurs. They are skilled in what they do, but they do not do it for money. They do it for love. We all benefit from that, and agriculture in this country benefits to the tune of at least £165 million a year. In round terms, 5 per cent. of that is £8 million.

I accept that the Government should not be responsible for all the research and development for the bee industry in the United Kingdom, but because it is, in a sense, a free industry, the Government should fund about half that research and development on behalf of society. They should put in about £4 million a year for something that benefits us all to the tune of more than £165 million a year. That is in contrast with the apparent amount—the Minister may enlighten us with different figures—of about £200,000 a year that the Government actually put into research; £1.3 million goes into inspection and so on, and only £200,000 is left over for research.

The contrast between £4 million a year and £200,000 a year is far too great. The BBKA’s suggested figure of £8 million over five years is incredibly modest—that is no criticism of the BBKA. It is not a ridiculous amount such as politicians often come across when people suggest amounts because they believe passionately in a pet project. It is a sensible amount and, if anything, is low. I urge the Minister to consider it carefully.

John Penrose: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it might be helpful if the Minister told us whether he has had any conversations with his opposite number in the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is responsible for a great deal of academic research into all sorts of related areas? Some sort of joined-up government thinking might produce alternative pots of money that could be put to the excellent use that he is proposing.

Rob Marris: I entirely agree. It is not simply a question of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs putting in £4 million a year. The money should come from Government across the board, including the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, and it is arguable that the Department for Children, Schools and Families might kick in in terms of education and so on. We need a cross-departmental push—it used to be called joined-up government, but I am not sure what we call it now—and Government as a totality should put in around £4 million a year for the necessary research.

Dr. Gibson: The Wellcome Trust has bailed out this country’s research for years through research councils and money that it has accrued, and it would be interested in basic research in this area. Quite a few charities have big sums of money that might help, so the Government might have to pay even less.

Rob Marris: The Government could take more of a lead in bringing in organisations such as the Wellcome Trust. My hon. Friend may recall that my ballpark figure is that society and the country should put in
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about £8 million, which is 5 per cent. of the industry’s low figure of £165 million. I posit that half—£4 million— should come from the Government, and that the other £4 million could come from the charitable foundations to which he referred and other sources, perhaps including European Union money.

The Government are underfunding research into bees, and that will be to our peril unless we do something. I am not an expert on bees, but I understand that there is only so much research that can be imported because we have our own climate, our own crops, our own way of doing things, our own strains of bees and, to some extent, our own bee diseases and infestations. We need to do research into the bee situation in the United Kingdom, and that research needs to be done by UK researchers in our own country. At least half should be funded by the Government, which is considerably more than is the case now.

11.38 am

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): I did not intend to speak in this debate, but I was inspired to do so, as I often am, by the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson). I cannot claim to have his expertise or that clearly shown by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), but I want to add my voice to those of other hon. Members and to plead with the Government to reprioritise the industry, as there is a number of serious concerns.

The haunting picture of a world without bees that the hon. Member for Norwich, North painted reminded me of Rachel Carson’s famous book, “Silent Spring”, which was published more than 40 years ago and launched the modern environmental movement. It was about the effects of DDT on birds and mammals. We could be looking at a similar set of factors now.

There is an argument about whether colony collapse disorder is being seen in the United Kingdom yet, but it is in Europe, so it is going global and it is a great concern. There may be a coincidence of factors behind that. Even in the United Kingdom varroa mite seems to be developing resistance, which is one problem. There is discussion in the United States that bees may be developing some kind of immune suppression syndrome, and that there could be a viral cause. Research suggests that when the Israeli acute paralysis virus is present in the hive, the hive is 65 times more likely to develop colony collapse disorder, so there seems to be a strong evidential basis there. On the other hand, Australia has that virus but no reported problems and no varroa mite. It is a very complex picture.

I have read the reports mentioned by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome which, he said, posited a link with transgenic crops. Now is not the time to engage in that debate, but it is a legitimate research area. Apart from a few papers that were written about 10 years ago, not much research has been produced in that field.

One of the problems that we face worldwide—I think this is true within in the United Kingdom—is a lack of genetic diversity within bees. As I understand it, there is a preponderance of the Italian bee. The issue is certainly of interest to Wales. We had a pocket of bees in west Wales that survived the last major collapse in the 1920s. The collapse started in the Isle of Wight and spread
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throughout the UK, but in Pembrokeshire and parts of Carmarthenshire, local populations of bees seemed to withstand that collapse.

The Pembrokeshire Beekeepers Association has been given some money to try to breed a local population that is adapted to local conditions. Perhaps developing such a population, which is also more resistant to varroa and tracheal mite infestation, is one of the future routes that we need to take. However, the association was given only £5,000 by the national lottery, and therein lies our problem.

The problem is very serious because all life is inter-connected. Bees are connected to humans. Obviously, the apple industry could be wiped out unless we take prompt and appropriate action. Organic beekeepers in America say that they have no evidence of CCD and it has been suggested that that is because they do not fumigate for the varroa mite or use pesticides. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said, the use of pesticides more generally—particularly neonicitinoid pesticides that have neurotoxic effects on bees and affect their learning and navigation abilities—could play some part in what we are seeing globally.

We need substantial and extensive research to help us to understand what is happening globally and to learn about the strains of disease, their effect on the UK bee population and some of the solutions—such as the one that I mentioned in Pembrokeshire. I am glad to see that the Welsh Assembly Government are playing their part by contributing £280,000 to the National Bee Unit. I urge the Minister to do more. As the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) said, spending money on research would be a good investment because it would prevent a catastrophe that would devastate key elements of our agriculture industry.

11.44 am

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Taylor, and to have the opportunity to make a modest contribution to the debate on this important subject. I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing the debate.

I do not claim to be an expert in this matter, but I know what colour bees are. I am afraid that I need to correct the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) because there was an important factual inaccuracy in his comments. He referred to bees wearing the colours of his favourite football team, Wolverhampton Wanderers. The last time that I checked, their official colours were old gold and black, but the last time I saw a bee in close proximity, its colour was yellow and black, which more accurately reflects the colours of Hull City or—dare I suggest?—the Liberal Democrats, with whom they may share an allegiance.

More seriously—because this is an important debate—my participation in this matter today has largely been fired by two things. One was an article I read some weeks ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) in the Daily Mail. That article has been helpfully included in the briefing pack. To anyone who has not seen this article and does not understand the general issues that are being raised today, I would say that it is a helpful introduction to the subject. Secondly, I have been contacted by the secretary of the Cheshire
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Beekeepers Association, who, I am proud to say, is a constituent of mine. He too has briefed me on the importance of the issue, and that is why I have come here today to support what the hon. Member for Norwich, North has had to say and to press the Government for some indication that they accept the need to give a little more assistance to the research that is needed.

[John Cummings in the Chair]

I think that we all agree that there has been, beyond any reasonable doubt, a dramatic decline in the bee population, which, as we have heard, is important to the natural environment, agriculture and horticulture. What we do not know, however, are the precise reasons behind that dramatic decline. That is why research is crucial. It is fair to say that the Government have a role to play—whether through DEFRA or another body. I hope that the Government will not turn their back on this important and growing problem.

We have already heard that the British Beekeepers Association has been seeking a research grant of some £8 million over eight years. As I understand it, the Government’s response to date has been to cut the research budget by some 20 per cent. There are now fewer inspectors and researchers involved in this very important area. Last November, Lord Rooker said that unless effective action is taken, bees would disappear within 10 years. That is a frightening prospect, for the reasons that we have already heard. To be frank, the solution to the problem is not the occasional very modest contribution from the lottery fund. I know that reference was made to the £5,000 that Pembrokeshire beekeepers have been awarded, and I am sure that the money will be put to extremely good use. None the less, we are looking for a lead from the Government and we want reassurance that the investment in research will be made. I press the Minister to accept that if that is not forthcoming and if we are seen to ignore the plight of the honey bee, future generations may not be quite so forgiving.

11.48 am

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): That was a quick change. I did not pick up that the Chairman had changed before I stood up to make a small contribution. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cummings. I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on obtaining this debate.

It has been said that beekeeping in this country is a pastime of amateurs. However, those amateurs have mounted a well-orchestrated and well-directed campaign. They have focused the minds of hon. Members on this very important issue, and I congratulate them on the work that they have done. Hon. Members have set out in great detail, and with a great deal of evidence, the fact that we are confronted with a classic case of DEFRA collapse syndrome. All the symptoms indicate that this is a classic case of doing too little too late. A lot of public money will have to be spent to undo damage that could have been prevented in the first place.

There is much evidence that bees are in decline. Certainly, in this country, 20 per cent. did not make it through the past winter, which is quite a high proportion. This morning, I spoke to a colleague, Karl Showler,
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who was a little more optimistic than I had anticipated. He told me that it was strange that evidence can be put in different ways and said that beekeeping was on a high at the moment. He also said that beekeepers and the quality of beekeeping had improved in recent years. He informed me that one of the reasons for that is that varroa and varroosis have meant that beekeepers who do not have the relevant dedication and expertise cannot keep their hives going and have dropped out of beekeeping activities. As such, he feels that the beekeepers who operate now are of a higher standard than he has ever known—and he has worked with bees for more than 50 years.

The varroa disease is now endemic, but Karl Showler has told me that he has examined his hives—he has a lot fewer than he used to—and he can find no evidence of varroa at the moment. I am not sure whether that is because he is so diligent in his work and uses oxonic acid to treat his bees. I know that some of the varroa mites have become resistant to pyrethroid insecticides. The ability of diseases and parasites to become resistant to treatments is one of the reasons why we want research to be done.

Varroa is a disease that we understand and that beekeepers have been able to live and work with. However, something else is going on in our bee colonies that cannot yet be explained. We have talked about colony collapse disorder in America, and I wonder whether that has the same cause or whether we are seeing a number of unrelated things. Is colony collapse disorder related to just one disease, or have a number been affecting colonies in America?

A point that has been strongly made is that the uncertainty about the disease status of bees means we should think carefully about importing bees into this country, as my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said. I understand that queen bees can be imported from New Zealand and Hawaii, but a number of people have told me that that is a dangerous practice and that we should perhaps think about safety first. Perhaps the Minister will say something about the restrictions on imports.

One subject on which research could take place and which would be profitable is bee breeding. The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) pointed out that work on that is going on in Pembrokeshire funded by lottery money. Research could be directed to the breeding of bees that are resistant to some of these diseases. Where there is disease resistance, there is less use of chemicals and less disruption to the bees’ immune system and their natural ability to forage and find their way around.

The hon. Member for Norwich, North—I think it is Norwich, North.

Dr. Gibson: The rough part.

Mr. Williams: The beekeeping part. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that there should be biological control work to find diseases or other parasites that are parasitical upon or can infect the disease perpetrator. That is another potential avenue. This morning, I was thinking about a book written by Theresa Clay and Miriam Rothschild, “Fleas, Flukes and Cuckoos”. The book
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discusses parasites and says that large fleas have smaller fleas upon their back to bite them and smaller fleas have lesser fleas and so on, ad infinitum. The research needed to find a biological control mechanism that can be used on particular diseases could be profitable.

The financial importance of bees and pollination has been mentioned. Insect pollination is an important part of the pollination process. Although there is self-pollination and wind pollination, the anatomy of many plants is designed to want or need insects to pollinate them. Indeed, some are designed to have only bees pollinating them, and I do not think we can look for an alternative pollinator for such plants.

Yes, pollination is important to agriculture, but it is also very important in terms of biodiversity in this country. Natural England has done much work on sites of special scientific interest and other protected areas, but if pollinators are not in those areas, the purpose of designating those sites will not be fulfilled. Perhaps the Minister can help me to answer a query I occasionally hear by saying whether bees are a species that have been in this country for all time or whether they are an introduced species. I understand that Natural England has said that bees, or hives, should not be taken to Salisbury plain because they are not an endemic species in this country and it wants to protect the ecosystem there. I have no further information on that—although I tried to find out something on it this morning. However, I think the theory is that bees were introduced into this country and are therefore not part of our natural ecosystem.

John Penrose: I hope to help the hon. Gentleman. I think I am right in saying that bees in one form or another are part of the fossil record going back many millions of years. It may be that the British or European honey bee is a relatively recently evolved species—I do not know—but honey-producing bees in one form or another have certainly been around for millions of years. They certainly go back well before Britain was ever legally invented.

Mr. Williams: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. It has been put to me that bees were present in the fossil record, but I do not know whether the species present in Britain today—whether the wild or domestic variety—is a new species. It worries me that because wild bees are not tended in the way in which those in hives are, a number of the pollinating mechanisms for a biodiverse ecosystem are being lost.

The National Farmers Union, which represents commercial beekeepers from the Bee Farmers Association, makes the point that

I ask the Minister to respond to that request.

The message is clear. Something unexplained is going on in bee colonies that affects our beekeepers’ interests. The amount of money allocated to research is small. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) did a fantastically complex mathematical calculation and came up with the sum of £4 million. A number of hon. Members would have liked £8 million,
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but the hon. Gentleman’s request is probably more reasonable. The message from this debate and the campaign launched by beekeepers is that the Government should do something now, or the consequences will be such that the position may not be recoverable. I, too, ask the Minister to consider increasing investment in research, so that we can find an explanation for what is going on and a cure for the diseases and complications now being exhibited.

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