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My Lords, I begin by thanking noble Lords who are supporting this debate and I look forward very much to hearing their contributions. In many ways, the debate is a perfect antidote to the divisive EU withdrawal Bill, being on a subject that will affect us and future generations long after the world has forgotten what the initials “EU” even stood for.
I confess that I was generally pretty ignorant about bees and pollinators until around a year ago when a remarkable young woman, Polly Birch, who had such a passionate commitment to spreading the word about their importance, reminded me and many others about just how much we rely on them and how their numbers are in decline. This debate is timely as the Private Member’s Bill tabled by Ben Bradley MP to make provision for the protection of pollinators started its passage through the other place on
I have only now discovered that bees are the second most written about species after man. There is even a whole body of law relating to honey bees, most of which has its basis in Roman law. A swarm still belongs to you even when it has left its hive, as long as you can still see it, and allegedly one may trespass on a neighbour’s land in order to retrieve it. Somewhere in my consciousness was the threat repeated last week by David Attenborough that should bees disappear from the face of the earth, man would have only,
“four years left to live”.
The quote is wrongly attributed to Einstein, but it is the sort of thing that he might have said. We probably would not starve because wind is a good pollinator, but there is no doubt that our diet would become very dull and getting our five-a-day would be very tricky.
This Government and the coalition before them have already done a great deal to encourage the habitats of the 1,500 or so species of insect pollinators that we have in this country. Although we may think of bees as the primary pollinators—there are 250 different varieties of them, 35 of which are currently in danger of extinction—we also have hoverflies, butterflies, beetles, moths and even bats. Most of these live in the wild, with the exception of the headline-grabbing honey bee. The NFU estimates the economic value of their pollination services at £690 million per annum but they also support a small but thriving industry of some 250 bee farmers, as well as thousands of amateur beekeepers.
The report also highlighted progress in a number of areas including habitat creation, public engagement and the protection of honey bee health, all as a result of many different sections of the community—not just the bee farming industry and the farming community, but schools, universities, charities such as the National Trust, Buglife, BeeConnected and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, and central and local government—working collaboratively. Productive beehives at Defra’s offices in London and York now produce Defra honey, as do hives on the roofs of Fortnum’s, Coutts and the Garrick Club.
Funding has also been provided for a range of primary research projects covering everything from genetic sequencing and the taxonomy of insect pollinators to the relationship between pollinators and pollination services in crop production. I know that the Bee Farmers Association hopes that more funds will be directed to the National Bee Unit in the Food and Environment Research Agency once the Green Paper on nature and harmony is published.
Despite all this, bees and a variety of pollinators are in decline. Clearly, much more can be done, not only by government but by us all. Let us stray into the area that is most likely to cause controversy—the use of insecticides—which I am sure will be covered in more depth by my noble friend Lord Ridley. Integrated pest management is central to this Government’s approach. The objective is to reduce the overall use of pesticides by using them in a more targeted way, to reduce resistance, and supplementing them with improved crop husbandry and the use of natural predators.
The EU recently banned the use of neonicotinoids on all field crops, not just those that are attractive to bees, as had been the case since 2013. Neonics are a group of insecticides that have been linked to a sharp reduction in bee numbers. Environmental groups welcomed this move but, interestingly, the Bee Farmers Association was agnostic about the ban. Perhaps we should be cautious. Bees in Australia, a large user of neonics, do not appear to be adversely affected and the research by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre on which this policy was based concluded that the ban may be counterproductive. It has resulted in an increased use of more damaging pesticides, mainly pyrethroids, which are sprayed rather than seed-treated; that is worse for non-pests. The study found that UK farmers have more than quadrupled the number of insecticide applications on oilseed rape but pest pressure has still increased. The JRC report has not been made public and although I urge the Government to ensure that the regulation of pesticides continues after we leave the EU, it needs to be developed on the basis of independent and verifiable scientific research.
An undeniable cause of the declining number of pollinators has been the destruction of their habitat. Over 97% of all flower-rich grasslands have been lost in England since the 1930s, whether through transport, infrastructure, modern farming methods or housebuilding. The habitats that exist have become particularly fragmented; the southern margins of their distribution are shrinking northward, while the northern margins are static. Buglife, a charity that works closely with the Government on strategy, has developed the award-winning concept of “B-Lines”, a series of insect pathways running through our towns and countryside. Along them stretch a series of wildflower-rich stepping stones, linking existing wildlife areas into a network. Much work is being undertaken to identify areas suitable for grassland habitat restoration and creation. The proposed Bill will encourage local authorities to include such considerations in area plans since the creation of a channelled pattern of habitats is the most effective way of promoting species dispersal.
Since there is a need to restore pollinator-friendly habitats, and to establish wildflower recovery areas, this could perhaps link with the aim to replace the countryside stewardship payments from the CAP with a scheme that will incentivise farmers to look after the environment. Perhaps it could also be tailored in such a way that it favours pollinators and the bee farming industry, as is the case already in Germany.
We, the public, whether city or country dwellers, can all play our part by growing a range of bee-friendly plants that will provide pollen and nectar for all pollinators. I suggest that we avoid rhododendron ponticum, whose nectar is toxic to bees, and the silver lime—Tilia tomentosa—which uses caffeine to trick bees into visiting empty flowers, whereupon many die of starvation. Moreover, although farmers and bees alike love oilseed rape, I am told that it is not ideal for honey production.
There is so much to say about bees, and I shall end by sharing what I have learned from noble Lords who have passed by my desk in the Library over the past week or so. Bees measure distance by the way the hairs on their backs flatten as they fly from the hive; they prefer trumpet-shaped flowers; they are colour-specific and will not go from a blue flower to a red one to a yellow, and they dance on the hive to direct their fellows to nectar-rich areas. And my favourite fact: it was one of St David’s missionaries who introduced bees to Ireland in the sixth century.
Lastly, there is also, perhaps, much to be learned from the way bees organise themselves. The cleric and philosopher Samuel Purchas, in his Theatre of Political Flying Insects, written in 1625, observed:
“Bees are political creatures, and destinate all their actions to one common end; they have one common habitation, one common work; all work for all, and one common care … ”.
That is not a bad dictum for this House.