Previous Section Index Home Page

29 Apr 2009 : Column 268WH—continued

10.21 am

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): I am grateful to be speaking under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) on securing this important debate. I thank the hon. Members for Castle Point (Bob Spink) and for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) for avoiding the temptation to drone on and for giving me the chance to speak on this important issue. I think that we are all united in wanting a return to boom and buzz. Surely my hon. Friend will agree that that pun is so bad that it should keep the British Beekeepers Association in funds for the foreseeable future.

Even studying Virgil—the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife gave a good Virgilian translation about the industry and work load of bees—did not give me a love of bees. I did not learn to love the bee until I became the hon. Member for Wantage—well, the Member for Wantage; I must not get above myself—and discovered that Rowse Honey was located in Wallingford in my constituency.

All hon. Members will know about Rowse Honey, even if they do not realise it, because it produces a third of the honey found on supermarket shelves. It imports honey from all over the world and blends it. Rowse invented the plastic honey pot that can be squeezed. It now employs 170 people and is, incidentally, a fantastic company within the community, giving a great deal of money to local charity. I pay tribute to Richard Rowse, who recently left the company, and David Bondi, its new managing director. Rowse has put its money and profile where its honey jars are, as it were, by donating £100,000 to the research of Professor Ratnieks, which the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) ably summarised. It has also run a campaign to save the honey bee by making it prominent on all Rowse honey jars.

I need not detain this knowledgeable House full of apiarists with facts about the importance of honey bees. Suffice it to say that an estimated one third of the food that we eat depends on pollination. That includes a range of important fruits such as apples, pears, peaches, strawberries and blackberries and vegetables such as carrots, broccoli and onions. Some £165 million of the food market—I suspect that that is an underestimate—consists of produce that depends on honey bees for pollination. Almonds have been mentioned. Eighty per cent. of our almonds come from the United States. Every year, bees are trucked from Florida to California to pollinate those almonds. Without bees, we would have no almonds. Bees also produce 1.4 million tonnes of honey, of which we in Britain consume 6,000 to 7,000 tonnes.

29 Apr 2009 : Column 269WH

There has been a steep decline in beekeeping. If we were debating this subject in 1909 instead of 2009, we would be able to refer to 1 million hives in this country; if we were debating it in the 1950s, we would be able to refer to 400,000. Today we can refer to only 274,000. The decline is precipitate. In the winter of 2007-08, it is estimated that the collapse in hives was around 25 per cent. We would normally expect a 4 per cent. decline during the winter and a 10 per cent. decline during a very bad winter. I think that I am right in saying that 25 per cent. is unprecedented. In some areas of the United States, the collapse has been as much as 36 per cent.

The decline in hives has led to a new crime of which hon. Members may be aware: bee rustling. A hive now costs about £250, so it is more common than ever for hives to be stolen. In a recent case in Shropshire, 18 hives were stolen, to the value of £5,000.

We are discussing, of course, the phenomenon of colony collapse disorder. The hon. Member for Norwich, North mentioned the varroa mite, a well understood parasite that attaches itself to bees and infects them. He rightly referred to Professor Ratnieks’ research into breeding hygienic bees that clear up after themselves and remove dead bees from their hives, making it harder for the varroa mite to breed, but there is also a concern about the possible effect of pesticides on bees. One of the features of colony collapse disorder is that one does not come to the hive and find a lot of dead bees; one comes to the hive and finds no bees. They have not necessarily been killed by the varroa mite.

There is a theory that pesticides destroy bees’ brains, making it harder for them to find their way home. It is interesting that urban bees are doing better than rural bees. Some people posit the theory that that is because there are fewer pesticides in an urban environment. There is also the stress of travel. It is not just the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife who finds it stressful to travel with bees—bees themselves, as he mentioned, find travel stressful. Bees are moved around a great deal, particularly in the United States. There is also, of course, the phenomenon of climate change.

Research is essential. I welcome the Government’s increase in funding. I note that when I posted my concerns about funding levels on my blog, it took the Government two days to increase funding. I am hoping that after this speech, funding will have doubled again by the end of the week; I know that cause and effect are present.

As so many substantial points have been made throughout this debate, I want to make only one. It concerns the pace at which funding can be applied. I understand the need for peer review and the need to ensure that projects funded by the Government are properly assessed, but I refer once more to Professor Ratnieks, the man of the moment, our first professor of apiary. As I understand it, he needs about £650,000. He is running four projects, collectively called the Sussex plan, that are designed to provide stop-gap measures for beekeepers, to find the reasons behind colony collapse disorder and perhaps even to find a cure. His fourth project has been planned out, but it desperately needs funding.

29 Apr 2009 : Column 270WH

The delay engendered by peer review means that the projects funded by Government money will not be under way until autumn 2011. I am happy for the Minister to correct me, but that is what I have been told. Given the urgency of the research needed, my plea to her—the one point that I can add to the excellent points made by hon. Members throughout this debate—is to ensure that the funding comes on stream as soon as possible, so that that urgent research can be undertaken as quickly as possible.

10.28 am

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your able chairmanship, Mr. Benton. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) for his persistence on the issue and his incredibly well informed and fluent speech. Other Members’ contributions have been well informed as well.

We have mentioned puns, jokes and so on. One problem that we have come up against in the campaign is that the issue is simply not taken seriously. It is important to say that we have much to celebrate in terms of the additional funding provided, but the campaign had to succeed against a sense that the issue was trivial. The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) poured scorn on my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) when he raised this issue. However, my hon. Friend was right on the bees and on the banks, although he was not taken seriously when he first spoke about the bees.

I remember meeting Lord Rooker a few years ago. I should say that I have a tremendous amount of time for Lord Rooker, but when I spoke to him and his civil servants about this issue, I got the sense that they were listening semi-sympathetically but actually thought it was all a bit silly really. So I am very pleased that we have got to this situation, and great credit must be paid to the Minister and others involved in her Department that the issue has now rightly been taken seriously.

It is important to state how vital a role the national association, the British Beekeepers Association, has played, but local organisations have also played a key role. My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) referred to his local beekeepers association. In my area, the Furness and District Beekeepers Association has been my main source of information. Without local beekeeping associations, many of us here would not have half of our information on this vital subject.

None the less, the plight of the honey bee has been trivialised and overlooked, to the extent that vital action to protect British bee colonies has been delayed. Only time will tell whether the action that will be taken will be sufficient to prevent disaster. The threat to our honey bees comes from an alarming range and combination of sources. We have already heard about many of them, such as the parasitic varroa destructor mite, the aethina tumida larvae, which infests bee colonies and preys upon bee larvae, viral diseases and, of course, the devastating colony collapse disorder, which is frankly a mystery. CCD has not yet been traced in this country, as far as we can tell, but nevertheless it is absolutely terrifying, and it has had a devastating impact in the United States, of course.

29 Apr 2009 : Column 271WH

The result of those diseases has been the loss of virtually all Britain’s wild honey bee population and about a third of the overall bee population. In certain areas, the loss has been particularly devastating. In London in the winter of 2007, two thirds of the city’s bee colonies were wiped out, and the 2008 UK honey harvest was down by about 50 per cent. That is clear and tangible evidence of the consequence of the staggering drop in bee numbers. To refer to Lord Rooker again, in November 2007 he concluded that if things did not change, the British honey bee would be extinct within 10 years.

Bees play a vital role in our ecology. Experts describe the impact of the loss of bee populations as the key trigger in what they call an “extinction vortex”, which would lead to the loss of plant life and consequently impact on other aspects of the food chain. The commercial value of the British bee population is estimated to be in the region of £200 million a year, due to the role of bees in enabling the cross-pollination of crops. However, if we add the supermarket mark-up, the figure for the financial value of the bee industry is nearer £1 billion; perhaps that is an issue for the supermarket regulator to deal with. We have heard from many sources today. Different sources give different figures, but it is estimated that about 35 per cent. of our diet is dependent on bees, because they are the principal pollinator of farms and gardens. All that evidence means that we must ensure that the investment that goes into saving our bees is commensurate with their enormous economic and ecological value.

There is nothing esoteric or quaint about this issue. The hard realities of lost bee populations and their essential value to food production and farm productivity are demonstrated by the increasing numbers of farmers who are importing bees from southern and eastern Europe, at considerable cost to themselves. However, that cost is nothing compared with the huge cost resulting from the loss of bees and their contribution to crop growth.

Among the difficulties that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs faces in tackling this crisis is that its ability to respond depends on its ability to deliver information to beekeepers and to provide inspection services. However, it is estimated that about 20,000 beekeepers in Britain are not known to DEFRA. Given that four out of every five cases of bee disease are diagnosed by inspectors, that is a huge blind spot. I agree with the majority of contributors to the debate today who say that we do not need and must not have a compulsory register of beekeepers. However, we must acknowledge that blind spot, and we need to think of sensitive and effective ways to deliver information.

John Penrose: I just want to point out, for the record, that there is a degree of uncertainty about the figures that the hon. Gentleman has just quoted. The BBKA certainly believes that the number of unregistered beekeepers is substantially smaller than that figure of 20,000, although everyone accepts that there is a reasonable number of unregistered beekeepers out there.

Tim Farron: Indeed. We cannot know the details of an unknowable, and the hon. Gentleman is correct to make that point. That is one of the reasons why we need to be careful about over-emphasising that issue. Having
29 Apr 2009 : Column 272WH
said that, the number of unregistered beekeepers is a blind spot and our ability to deliver information, including information about regulations and correct practices for example, and even treatments depends on our ability to know where the beekeepers are.

We also need to have more comprehensive ways of delivering information and of ensuring helpful and sympathetic inspection. However, there are indicators that that is not currently the case. For example, the recent report by the National Audit Office showed that many beekeepers had not been made aware of many of the regulations on importing honey bees.

There are too many unknowns, as many hon. Members have mentioned today. We talk about the grey squirrel effect, for example. To what extent are we losing bees due to native species being forced out by more aggressive foreign bees? There are other factors. For instance, there is the threat of climate change, including the effect of wet weather on mating patterns and on preventing bees from foraging for enough nectar and pollen to see them through the winter months. All those potential threats need to be understood, and they need to be understood quickly.

There are also many perceived hazards that may affect bee populations. In particular, we have heard about pesticides. However, it is important at this stage that we acknowledge that there is currently no evidence that indicates that pesticides are a factor in colony losses, and we should not allow such issues to divert us from taking urgent action on those factors that are known to cause colony loss. Examining the perceived hazards could be a serious distraction.

Until 2007, the Government dedicated only £200,000 to research into bee health in England and the overwhelming majority of that money was spent on meeting statutory obligations rather than on focusing on the urgent problems faced by beekeepers, such as the varroa parasite. Once again, the NAO concluded that DEFRA’s attempts to control varroa have not prevented it from becoming endemic. Only last month, a senior DEFRA civil servant appeared before the Public Accounts Committee and confirmed that bee health had not been a priority for the Department. However, that was an honest admission, and it is impressive that we are now moving forward.

It is important to welcome the Government’s recent announcement of significant funding for research. For some time now, many of us have been backing the BBKA’s campaign for increased research funding, and so it is extremely encouraging that it has been granted. However, I want to emphasise a point that others have already made, which is the lack of clarity about where the £10 million of research money will be targeted. After the fanfare that accompanied the announcement of that £10 million, it is now clear that the research that it will fund will investigate the problems faced by all pollinators. We accept that approach, up to a point. However, I understand that there are 2,500 species of pollinating insects in this country, including about 250 species of bee, only one of which is the honey bee. Given that the honey bee is responsible for more than 50 per cent. of the pollination of wild plants, there is real concern about a lack of clarity regarding the research money and specifically about how much will be spent on researching honey bee health. So I just want to ask
29 Apr 2009 : Column 273WH
the Minister to confirm today that the overwhelming majority of that funding will be directed at research into honey bees.

We need an immediate shot in the arm for bee health research, and we need to ensure that any treatments are delivered effectively. My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife pointed out another issue that is holding up effective treatment, which is the fact that bees are classed as livestock. It is often the case that a vet is required for any treatment. I want the Minister to confirm that she will lobby for a change in the EU regulations, under the veterinary medicines directorate, to allow not only vets but bee experts, including beekeepers, to decide on the use of treatments in order to ensure that we roll out those treatments effectively.

In conclusion, we must also look to the future. Repopulating mainland Britain with wild bees, as well as restoring the strength of farmed bee colonies, must be a medium-term aim. To that end, we should look to use disease-free communities, such as the Isle of Man, as nurseries, to allow healthy bee hives to be brought back to the mainland, so that we can ensure a growth in the populations of both wild and commercial bees.

My final point is simple. This campaign has been going on for some time, and we came up against the issue of credibility, in that it was difficult to be taken seriously by the Government. For all those who have been involved in the campaign at every level, it is immensely encouraging to see that we have achieved such a lot. Consequently, although it is important that we ask the key questions, about how this research money will be delivered and targeted and about many other issues, it is important that we are not churlish and instead give credit to the Government for taking this issue seriously, albeit belatedly.

10.39 am

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): Like others, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) for securing the debate and for showing such a knowledgeable understanding of the problems facing beekeepers and honey bee populations in this country. I particularly welcome the fact that he is setting up an all-party group, which I will certainly follow closely. I hope that the group will track the welcome new funding and that it will be effective. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) for supporting last year’s effective lobby and for his unswerving support for beekeepers across the country.

Honey bee health is arguably one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time, and the population of honey bees contributes around £200 million to the UK’s agricultural economy. Our bee population is declining at such an alarming rate that the relevant graph shows that it could be effectively wiped out within 10 years. It has never been more urgent that we address the problems facing honey bees in an effective and timely manner.

We have heard eloquent descriptions today of the plethora of threats from diseases such as the varroa mite, foul brood and colony collapse disorder, which is the collective term given to the disappearance of bees. As has been pointed out, bees also face the effects of
29 Apr 2009 : Column 274WH
climate change, habitat loss, intensive farming and insecticides. It is worth contemplating the point made by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). Speaking as a farmer, I shudder when I think back to the sort of things we were persuaded to use by agronomists in the early 1990s and 1980s to cope with problems such as the orange blossom midge. The insecticide situation is much better now and farmers understand the need to be extremely cautious. In that respect, best practice and regulation have worked, but more needs to be done. I hope that some research will be done into whether systemic pesticides are part of the problem and whether other forms of pesticides, in relation to which the situation is so much better, are a diminishing problem. A great deal of work needs to be done on that.

Like other hon. Members, I pay tribute to the British Beekeepers Association. It was a great pleasure for me to attend its spring convention at Stoneleigh recently and to see so many thousands of enthusiastic people, who were determined to tackle the problems faced by honey bee populations. It was a pleasure to meet Norman Carreck, who works with Professor Ratnieks in Brighton at Sussex university. I look forward to going down there to see first hand the wonderful work that they are doing. I also pay tribute to the west Berkshire branch of the BBKA. It is a wonderful local organisation and it has guided me in an important part of my brief.

The lobby that took place last year was one of the most effective lobbies of Parliament that I have seen in my short time here, and it was a great tribute to all those involved. I could be churlish and complain and whinge about the lack of funding in the past but, in the spirit of the debate, I pay tribute to those who have campaigned effectively and to those who have listened and enabled increased funding to be secured. It is important to consider the detail of where the funding could go. There are considerable concerns, and I hope that the Minister will tackle those in the time that she has.

Let us consider the funding element. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has marketed new funding for research into bee health, but it is not clear how much will be spent specifically on research into honey bee health. Although up to £10 million of extra funding has been pledged, that money will be spread around research into all pollinators, as we have heard. The figure that I have in my head—although that figure has been slightly varied by today’s contributions—is that 80 per cent. of the pollination that we require to sustain our ecology and agricultural crops comes from the honey bee population.

Whatever the statistic is, honey bees are by far the most important pollinators, and they are the pollinators that we can most affect by good research. It is vital that the vast majority of the research is directed towards honey bees rather than other types of pollinators. Moths, butterflies, hoverflies and bumblebees are important, but they are a mere sideline when compared with the importance of the honey bee population. Money could effectively be wasted on albeit well intentioned research into pollinators that could turn out to be far less relevant to crop pollination. When the new funding for research projects is allocated, I hope that the Minister will reassure us that honey bees will be given priority.

The Government’s much anticipated “Healthy Bees” strategy, which was published in March this year, outlined the Government’s aim

Next Section Index Home Page