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Bee Population - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:28 pm on 19th June 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Co-Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrat Peers 7:28 pm, 19th June 2018

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, on the debate, and I particularly enjoyed her stories about bees. I point out to her that lime pollen makes bees drunk, so they die happy, and that once a swarm is out of sight of the person whose hive it came from, if you can collect it, it is yours, and you can decide where to put it. I have benefited from that, because my gardener I found one in someone else’s garden and brought it to me; they did not want it anyway. I too am a beekeeper, and I keep Welsh Black bees, not Buckfast bees. They came and squatted in an empty hive. I am very pleased with them because they are very strong.

It has been lovely to hear stories from fellow beekeepers. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, should get a new bee suit. If he is being stung so often, it obviously has holes in it. The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, was right about hay fever—the noble Lord, Lord Marland, mentioned it as well—but the honey must be raw and not overfiltered or heat-treated, so that you get the pollen from your local garden. It certainly works for me as well. By the way, I am very jealous of the noble Lord, Lord Marland, and his electric honey extractor. I am afraid that I have the manual kind. When it is time to harvest my honey, I have to call on the strong right arm of my husband, my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford. I think that he will be wondering whether I am going to raid the family coffers and buy an electric extractor. His strong right arm would certainly be grateful.

As a beekeeper, I am well aware of the need to conserve all our important pollinators as well as our honey bees and wild bees, many species of which are endangered. The mouth parts of different insect species are adapted to reach the nectar in different-shaped flowers, so we need the whole range of insects to pollinate our crops. I am afraid that wind will not cut it because of the shape of the flowers.

I must congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, on his species-rich wildflower meadow and the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, on his cowslips, because they are important. I want to mention the many groups of volunteer gardeners such as my daughter and her colleagues in Altrincham in Bloom, who, with permission, have sown species-rich beds of wildflowers and other flowering plants in public places in the town. These have provided not only beauty for residents but a corridor of forage for a wide variety of bees and other pollinators. Such voluntary activity is to be encouraged and not discouraged, as happens when council workmen strim down the lot. I hope that most local authorities will encourage and co-operate with this sort of voluntary group who give so much of their time in the interests of our pollinators. It is also important that verges of major roads and motorways are left to flower and not strimmed to within an inch of their lives at the earliest opportunity. Does the Department for Transport have a policy on this?

Gardeners can play their part. As a keen gardener myself, I have a wide variety of plants in my garden. In fact, it has often been commented that I have less of a garden and more of a plant collection, but a wide variety of plants is important because of the need for a wide variety of pollinators.

Of course, beekeepers make a big contribution to pollination by protecting honey bees. Beekeeping is an excellent hobby, combining biology, physiology, history, horticulture and pharmacy. However, it is a big commitment and there is a great deal to learn. I have made some terrible mistakes in the past, from which I hope I have learned. It makes sense for new beekeepers to join local beekeeping associations and make use of the courses they offer and the advice so freely given. I am very grateful to my own bee mentors, Lloyd Roberts and Dell Hannaby. Does Defra provide supportive funding for these groups that are so valuable, particularly to new beekeepers?

Bee inspectors provided by the National Bee Unit are important, too, because they check the health of bees and help prevent the spread of disease. They also give good advice, as I can testify. It is sad to see that Defra, which runs the NBU at arm’s length, is not replacing bee inspectors. I heard recently from a bee inspector in Wiltshire that when he retires at the end of this year Wiltshire may not have an inspector. This is very dangerous for the health of bees in the county—we have heard all about the various diseases that are rampant. Can the Minister tell me whether this situation is happening in other areas of the country and what, if anything, is being done to replace these valuable officers?

One of the biggest hazards for bee colonies is the use of certain pesticides. The Government’s code of practice, which is due to be updated shortly—perhaps the Minister can tell us when—states that certain pesticides which may harm bees will be labelled as “harmful” or “high risk”. The person responsible for a spray operation is obliged to tell local beekeepers, or the British Beekeepers Association’s local spray liaison officer, 48 hours before the use of an insecticide at certain times of the year, giving beekeepers time to take the necessary precautions. The SLOs act as go-betweens, informing beekeepers when the farmer is going to spray.

However, this process has not always been effective, so a new initiative, which has already been mentioned by two noble Lords, has been set up by responsible farmers and growers. It is called BeeConnected and aims to help reduce pollinator exposure to insecticides by alerting beekeepers electronically before spraying. As my noble friend Lady Miller mentioned, BeeConnected has been developed in conjunction with the BBKA to replace the need for SLOs and instead inform beekeepers directly. It is a simple process whereby the person responsible for the spraying registers on the website and identifies the fields using Google Maps. The system automatically informs local beekeepers when someone intends to spray a particular field. Beekeepers who have plotted the location of their hives on the system will then receive a notification ahead of a spray event. This is as an excellent initiative, and I intend to go on the website and register my hives.

Such initiatives are important in the light of the risk to bees if we exit the EU and are no longer bound by the ban on neonics and other substances, unless the Government take similar action. Can the Minister assure us that the Government will continue to protect our pollinators if, unfortunately, we leave the EU?

Finally, the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, made a point about how crop-pollinating insects are thriving. If we grow more crops to feed the world’s growing population, it occurs to me that we are providing more food for their pollinators, so I am not surprised that they are thriving. I wonder whether the noble Viscount agrees. I look forward to the Minister’s response.