Bees
Oral Answers to Questions — Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
10:30 am

Photo of Richard Ottaway

Richard Ottaway (Croydon South, Conservative)

What estimate he has made of the recent decline in the bee population; and what assessment he has made of the effect on levels of pollination on that decline.

Photo of Hilary Benn

Hilary Benn (Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Leeds Central, Labour)

There are no reliable estimates on the number of honey bees in the UK, although there is consensus that the numbers have declined since the arrival of varroa in the early 1990s. No assessment has been made of the effect of that decline on pollination. I recently announced additional funding of £4.3 million for bee health, and that includes £2 million for research.

Photo of Richard Ottaway

Richard Ottaway (Croydon South, Conservative)

The Secretary of State will be well aware that the economic benefit that agriculture derives from the bee population represents more than £100 million a year. There is widespread concern, not only in agriculture but in suburbs such as Croydon. He has committed funds to the issue, but will he set out more detail? May we have a strategy and a timetable? May we have something that will give confidence to beekeepers? In short, can he get his Department buzzing with activity?

Photo of Hilary Benn

Hilary Benn (Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Leeds Central, Labour)

The Department has already published its strategy for bee health, and we are doing a number of practical things. The additional funding that I have announced will allow more research to be undertaken. We are bringing together all those who fund research into bees and the diseases that affect them—varroa, foulbrood and nosema. I have also been talking to the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, because one of the things that we need to do is encourage new treatments to come on to the market. One of the practical things that the VMD has done to make that happen is to reduce the fee that it would normally charge those who apply for authorisation for medicines; it recognises the need to search for all the treatments and try to get them on to the market as quickly as possible.

The third part of the funding that I have announced will allow more inspections. National Bee Unit inspectors are warmly welcomed by beekeepers when they visit, and they provide an important source of information that can feed back into our plan for dealing with this important problem.

Photo of Roger Williams

Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire, Liberal Democrat)

Last Saturday, I attended the Welsh beekeepers' convention at the Royal Welsh showground in Llanelwedd, where I met Karl Showler, a well known and well respected beekeeper from my constituency. I was told that more hives have survived and come through the winter in a good state than previously, so there is an element of optimism. However, if we are to deal with varroa in the long term, we will need a bee-breeding programme to encourage resistance to the disease. What is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs doing to encourage a bee-breeding programme?

Photo of Hilary Benn

Hilary Benn (Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Leeds Central, Labour)

I am glad to hear about the meeting that the hon. Gentleman attended. One of the problems faced by bee populations is the weather, which has been pretty bad in the past two years. When there is bad weather and the spring comes, there is an impact. The purpose of the funders' forum is to identify where there may be gaps in the research programme and make sure that the funding from the extra resources that we are putting in, and the other work being done on bee health, is applied to the important priorities, so that the problem is dealt with. The whole House recognises the importance of bees to our economy and to wildlife.

Photo of Anne Main

Anne Main (St Albans, Conservative)

Another crucial pollinator is the butterfly, as I am sure the Secretary of State accepts. Butterflies have been declining for 20 years; six species have become extinct and 54 are in massive decline. Butterfly World is an enormous project in St. Albans. Will the Minister visit it and consider giving a similar amount of investment to ensuring the future of butterflies? If he could flutter up to us, we would be delighted to see him.

Photo of Hilary Benn

Hilary Benn (Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Leeds Central, Labour)

That is a tempting invitation. The hon. Lady has raised an extremely important point. We are putting a huge amount of money into trying to support biodiversity in our countryside. For example, agri-environment schemes, which have just celebrated their 21st anniversary, are all about supporting farmers in providing the kind of habitats in which a range of wildlife, including butterflies, can prosper.