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Bee Population - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:50 pm on 19th June 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Liberal Democrat 6:50 pm, 19th June 2018

My Lords, first I warmly congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, on her very informative and excellent introduction. It is wonderful that she has such an appropriate name for this debate. She outlined really well that it is a toxic mix of habitat loss, parasites and pesticides that is affecting our bee population. The only thing to be said for the drastic reduction in some of the numbers is that it has motivated government and the public—and, indeed, industry, the farmers—into doing far more to counteract whatever it is that is affecting bees so adversely. Because it is a toxic mix, it has been very complex to establish which part of that mix, whether it is the pesticides, the habitat loss or the parasites, is responsible for the decline in which species.

The thing that continues to slightly confuse our debate is the terminology. We use the term “bees” when we mean honey bees, but we also use the term generically, as the noble Baroness said. There are 250 species of bee in the UK: 25 are bumblebees, one is the honey bee, and there are 224 species of solitary bees. Of course, the solitary bees are equally important in pollination and they have suffered something like a 50-year decline in diversity. Undoubtedly, a lot of that is due to habitat loss. Particular bees focus on particular plants, and I say to the Minister that it is important to bear this in mind when developing wildlife corridors. Wild flowers, as he knows, are not just generic. We sometimes find in seed packets in garden centres that just say “Wild Flowers”, but specific plants grow in specific geologies and at particular altitudes.

I think it is widely accepted that bees are declining—but, in fact, according to the last House of Commons research, 7.7% of species were said to be declining, 12.6% were stable and 0.7% were increasing, yet we know nothing about 79% of these bee species because the research has not been done yet. I particularly welcome the fact there is going to be research across the EU, known as PoshBee—it was mentioned on “Farming Today” this morning—looking at exactly what is affecting all these various pollinators. I congratulate the Government on endorsing the proposal to ban the outdoor use of the three sorts of neonics. Research is undoubtedly very important. We have organisations in this country, such as the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the Natural Environment Research Council, all applying their minds to it.

I hope and expect that when the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, comes to speak, he will be a bit less excoriating than he has been in the past about green groups and a bit less defensive of neonicotinoids, because the fact is that research proves that there are a lot of unknowns in this area—so it is quite right that these questions are asked. I know it makes for lively reading on his blog to be dismissive of many pieces of research that have been done, but I think that probably, as somebody who has done so much work in the area of science, and exploring it, he can accept that there is a lot still to be explored in this area.

I welcome the fact that there is going to be a new Bill on a national network of pollinator corridors. We definitely need species-rich wildflower habitats. I am sure that many noble Lords speaking in this debate will have read The Moth Snowstorm by Michael McCarthy, in which he makes the very good point that we really need to engage our natural wish to nurture nature and our natural propensity to take joy in nature. That will be far more motivating to people than sustainable development policies. I am not dismissing the policies, because there is a need for government action and policies, but there is a huge need for public motivation.

For example, we could say that it is not just pesticides but herbicides that are a threat to pollinators. Weed killing can take out all sorts of the food elements that a bee will depend on. There is also the close mowing of lawns, because clover in a lawn is a rich source of nectar, as are dandelions and thistles. I am worried about the herbicides which wipe out every bit of food that a pollinator might hope to find. Lawns made of Astroturf are the final straw: they will not provide anything for any pollinator. So there is lots of action that the public can take. I have seen many designs of bee hotels, which are really interesting. I am looking forward to building one over the summer out of pellets, old flowerpots and so on.

When it comes to farmers, there is also much going on that we can welcome. The Crop Protection Association sent a helpful briefing on its BeeConnected scheme, which talks about how the responsible farmer or grower will be obliged to tell beekeepers when they are going to spray. That is a great step forward that will allow beekeepers to take the necessary precautions—what about the 249 other species that are not looked after by a beekeeper? They will be out and about, soaking up the pesticide. That is an issue on which I hope the Government and industry will work together and will think about.

In vineyards, which I know a bit about as I have one, pyrethrum use is allowed under the organic regime but it is actually more toxic than many of the modern mite-focused sprays. Again, organic regulations need to be looked at to make sure that they are as up to date and pollinator-friendly as possible.

Finally, I ask the Minister for some clarification about protection for local wildlife sites, which will be really important in this pollinator corridor work. Protection status was called into question under the new planning policy framework. When I asked a Question on this—HL7636—the Answer said that the Housing Minister had written to all Peers and MPs clarifying protections for local wildlife sites. Well, I have not had a letter. Perhaps other noble Lords have. Perhaps the Minister can say that he will make this letter publicly available and clarify that the Government do not intend to change planning protection for local wildlife sites.