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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist, for securing this debate. I am in awe of the research that she has carried out for this debate. She confessed to me a few months ago that she did not know quite what was in her mind when she put her name down for this debate: she did not seem to know very much about bees, but she certainly may have more than made up for it in the last little bit. I will have to go around my garden eradicating rhododendron ponticum, which I have just planted in large numbers. I had no idea that it produced poisonous honey for my bees. I am also looking forward to contributions from other noble Lords.
We have been building up to a bee event on a biannual basis since I joined the House eight years ago. In fact, I decided that my maiden speech was going to be on bees—that is the arrogance one has when one first comes into this House—and then, of course, I discovered that that did not actually mean that there was going to be a debate ready for me to speak in. I had to adapt what I wanted to say to a rather esoteric discussion about special education, although I was rescued by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, who very kindly saw what I was trying to get at and came to my rescue and said some nice things about my speech. It is best forgotten.
I should declare, of course, that I am a beekeeper myself, although in truth I am a bit nervous about that name “beekeeper” since it implies some sort of role that I certainly do not have in relation to my bees. Bees are independent: they may well be on one purpose and a model for one aspect of this House, but they certainly do not do what I want them to do. I think that they keep me, rather than that I keep them and I am very nervous about them. I have a very good breed at the moment, however—they come from Buckfast Abbey, but I do not think that that means anything about their religious behaviour, although their Irish connection is very strong—and they are a joy to work, or were a joy to work until I moved them two years ago, whereupon they turned vicious. I have been stung so badly in the last couple of years that I was almost at the point of giving it up, but I went back there last weekend in view of this debate and went through them comb by comb, the sort of thing that only a very dedicated beekeeper can do. I did not get stung and had a wonderful time and they are thriving. I am delighted to report that to your Lordships’ House, and I am sure they will want to have some honey when it comes later in the year.
My neighbours in West Cork, though, have not been so lucky. That area was very badly hit by the storms. Storm Ophelia made landfall about a mile from where we have a house and a number of local farmers and others who have bees have lost a huge number of hives and most of their stock over this period. Indeed, I have been trying to find a nucleus to build up my bee collection but I have not been able to find anybody who has anything for sale this year. I just have to hope that a swarm appears in the next few weeks, although it is very late in the season for that.
There are 25,000 to 30,000 beekeepers in this country, a significant number of people. It is interesting, however, that we have a very different model of industry here compared to the rest of Europe. In most of Europe beekeeping is carried out by professional beekeepers and bee farmers. We have a slightly different situation compared with the EU as a whole, but it is broadly the same pattern: we do not produce nearly enough honey to meet our demands. Just think of the savings we could make if we could generate more activity around beekeeping and more of our own honey.
It is a very strange industry. There are a few industrial producers in this country—I think the figures were given by the noble Baroness—and a very large number of amateur keepers like me. Their numbers have grown in the last two years. Indeed, we have seen a surge of interest in urban beekeeping, as I think has been referenced. It is good to hear that the drones of the Garrick Club have a hive on their roof. I hope that they are more liberal with their use of the honey from the women who are doing all the work there than they are with their guests. I will pass on quickly from that.
As has been said, honey bees are a very important part of our agriculture: some £650 million per annum. But the survey that was recently carried out by the BBKA—the British Beekeepers Association—shows that the amount of honey per hive has decreased again this year, down some 10% from last year. We are worried about the number of hives, mainly because of the bad weather, as I said. Taken with the weather, we have to think about pests and diseases, loss of habitat, and possible pesticide effects, all of which have been mentioned. It is a very interesting and complex matrix. I look forward to the Minister’s comments when he responds. I do not expect him to wave a magic wand over the weather—I will forgive him that—but it is worth pointing out that the sort of climate we are experiencing at the moment is very bad for bees. They can cope with cold and are not too bad in snow, but they do not do wind and rain because it gets into the hives and they cannot get rid of it. It is really problematic for them when we have the sort of weather we are having in this period.
On health, there are still real problems with how we deal with our bees and how we provide effective medicine. The Varroa mite, which was the subject of a lot of discussion in the previous bee debate, has not increased very significantly. It seems that we are able to cope with it, but we cannot treat for the foulbroods, which are difficult to eradicate. There is a disease called nosema, which is likely to become more prevalent because the medicines used for it have been withdrawn.
The questions I have for the Minister are first on neonicotinoids, or neonics, which is easier to say. The Government are to be congratulated on their decision. At the time of the previous debate there was some doubt about whether the Government would follow the evidence, but it is very good that they have done so. The evidence was very convincing. I accept that there are problems about switching to other insecticides, but we should do what we can. Although the Government’s decision is welcome there is still a problem because these chemicals are not completely banned. They can be used to treat sugar beet and seed for winter cereals. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us whether any further work is being done on that and whether there will be action should the evidence prove it to be necessary.
Agricultural production has a significant impact on bees by affecting the quality and diversity of habitat within the landscape. I hope the Minister will say something about what the Government can do to provide more support for those who wish to make fields a little more readily accessible for bees and pollinators. Is there any research they can do about what type of pollination is the most helpful? For example, it is widely thought that tomatoes are fertilised by bees, but in fact it is bumble bees that do that job. It is done by vibration, not transmission through the pollen. It is important that we better understand what goes on when pollination takes place.
Agri-environment schemes have great potential and I hope there will be some news on them. More generally, habitats around the country need to be thought about as not just passive areas of land, but important forage and nesting resources for bees. Could the Government think about ways to strengthen protection for the sites by designating more with priority habitats of bees, perhaps reforming the environmental impact assessment regulations and improving cross-policy co-ordination to deliver stronger benefits for bees over the whole landscape?
There is a link here to planning. Maybe the planning system should also be looked at carefully to see whether it has sufficient protection for bees and their habitats. At the moment we think only in terms of houses and infrastructure, but surely it is important to make sure that we have the right approach in law to how we deal with the insects that we rely on. Some bees are recognised as national conservation priorities but, as a group, bees have received very little formal monitoring and conservation effort. I hope that the biodiversity strategy and the other work being done on long-term thinking in the department will allow bees to feature. I read the documents that are available at the moment, but they do not seem to mention bees in particular. I look forward to the comments of the Minister.
Finally, I talked about the workforce involved in bees. It is largely amateur and elderly, I fear, although there is a growth in the number of younger people who work with candles and other artefacts that come from bees. Are the Government thinking of creating a statutory beekeeper register, which might at least give us some fix on what the issue is? Are there any schemes, such as apprenticeships, that might be available in this area? Perhaps the Minister would think about that.