asked Her Majesty's Government:
What advice they have received about the health of the United Kingdom's bee population.
My Lords, the Government recognise the important contribution of bees as pollinators and the threat posed by pests and pathogens. The bee health programme is led in England and Wales by the National Bee Unit, which monitors bee colonies and investigates pests and disease and cases involving significant losses. The department is currently preparing a draft strategy for bee health and will be consulting stakeholders on the future aims and priorities for the programme.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply and for pointing out that we get much more from bees than simply honey; their contribution to pollinating everything from apples to beans is extremely important. How does Defra intend to co-ordinate the funding between itself, BBSRC and the academic institutions that are undertaking research? Does the Minister agree that the threats to bees from Varroa, foul brood and perhaps the small hive beetle from the Continent are unprecedented and might result in the sort of colony collapse that happened in America, where the bee population was halved? Is he confident that the funding for inspections and research is adequate in the face of those threats?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right that there are threats. The funding has remained the same in the United Kingdom; it is about £1.7 million, excluding funding for research. The same applies for the devolved Administrations. The funding is always under review. We are working, as I have said, on the strategy. An enormous amount of research is going on in the country, not just at the Central Science Laboratory where the National Bee Unit is based but in other academic institutions, as she said. It is true that serious efforts are being put into contingency planning for the Tropilaelaps—I have been practising that word but I still cannot say it—small hive beetle and the European foul brood, which is another disease. We are working on this with the industry because it is important. However, there is no connection between this and what has been happening in the United States. Even the United States does not know why so many colonies have collapsed, although obviously it is looking at this. Our scientists are in very close contact with United States scientists.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is considerable ignorance about the benefits that bees bring, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said? Does he accept that there is an increasing need for people to understand and perhaps to get involved in beekeeping? A number of people now recognise that keeping bees privately is beneficial not only as a hobby but as a public service. What are the Government doing to promote education about beekeeping and to encourage people to get involved in it?
My Lords, we know that there are 44,000 beekeepers, who are looking after some 274,000 colonies. Of those beekeepers, only 300 are commercial; they look after 40,000 colonies. The number is vast. If anyone wants an excellent example, they should look at the Guardian today, although it has nothing to do with this Question, and see what 14 year-old Philip Schilds is doing in Hackney. He regularly climbs up on to the roof to generate 500 pounds of honey for Hackney Rooftop Honey. With his eight hives, he is looking after a considerable number of bees. His food production is a tribute to youngsters. Honey from urban areas tastes better because the bees get a better variety of flowers than they do from the monotone in the countryside. My noble friend is right. Defra inspections are free, as are the training programmes. They might not always be free but they are currently. This is a public good because of the importance of bees to food production.
My Lords, one of the organisms that have been mentioned is the small hive beetle, Aethina, which can be carried into this country. It is not yet a risk, but it has invaded Canada, the United States and Australia, and it destroys large colonies of bees. Will the Minister say whether bees such as queens are still imported into this country, and does Defra regard that as a threat?
My Lords, we do not allow any bees to be imported from the United States. I do not know about the queens, but I know that some bumble bees are imported from Europe for commercial use. So far, we have not experienced a massive downturn in the hives. In fact, there were reports in the spring that there had been one of the most successful winters ever for the bee population. Counting the bee population is not easy, but the estimates for the United Kingdom are that there are 5 billion bees in the winter and 16 billion in the summer.
My Lords, in view of the Minister's impressive grasp of this important matter, will he undertake not to hive this subject off to another department?
My Lords, does the Minister accept that the first case of resistance to pyrethroid was acknowledged in 2001 in Devon? This has spread extensively across the country. What alternative has been forthcoming and are any approved substances that are not on the recommended list used abroad?
My Lords, I do not have a list, but resistance to pyrethroid is a common problem. It is important that where resistance is found beekeepers switch to using non-pyrethroid treatments and adapt the principles of integrated pest management. Field test kits for identifying the resistance have been developed by the National Bee Unit for use by bee inspectors and beekeepers. This public good is done by the unit as part of the Central Science Laboratory of Defra.
My Lords, would the Minister's department consider funding the very exciting research being done at Rothamsted into the development of biological pesticides to control Varroa? That might cost around £660,000 over three years, but it is a drop in the ocean if such control can help to sustain crop pollination in the EU to the tune of about £4 billion a year.
My Lords, the closure of Rothamsted's bee unit was a matter for Rothamsted; it was not an issue of Defra funding, although obviously we use the centre for research. Although there is no longer a team working on bee pathology at Rothamsted, apparently a group of researchers still studies bee behaviour, pollination and conservation. In addition, at a recent meeting of the British Beekeepers Association, it became clear to our officials that a vibrant group of researchers in England Wales is studying different aspects of bees. To the best of my knowledge, we are not short of bee research.