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Bee Population - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:37 pm on 19th June 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 7:37 pm, 19th June 2018

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, for giving us the opportunity to debate this issue and to all noble Lords who have contributed their considerable expertise and understanding. Like many other noble Lords, I have learned an enormous amount from listening to this debate. It seems to me that in this Chamber we are doing more than our fair share to nurture the habitats and the hives of our insect population.

It feels as if policymakers are having to relearn the importance of biodiversity and ecodependence, which was known instinctively to previous generations of our forebears, who would probably have known that rhododendrons were poisonous and other things that we are having to learn again, but so be it. Nevertheless, the reality is beginning to sink in. Defra’s research tells us what we can see for ourselves: that the number of insects in our fields and gardens is dropping, and that that decline includes the rather crucial pollinators. As noble Lords have said, there are a number of reasons for this decline. Disease, habitat loss, climate change and pesticides have all played their part.

Noble Lords have described the fantastic communication and navigation systems that bees have, but a simple change in a habitat can disrupt a bee’s memory and route finders and prevent it reaching sources of pollen. Very simple things in the ways bees operate can make an enormous difference to their effectiveness. This matters not just for those of us who care about the environment, but because the vast majority of food grown for consumption worldwide is pollinated by bees and other insects and we are rather reliant on them.

First, I pay tribute to the work that Defra is doing to raise awareness of this issue and to put policies in place to tackle the problems. For example, we very much welcome the Government’s announcement of a total ban on neonicotinoids. That has been our party’s policy for some time. We know that when neonicotinoids are used on one crop, residues of the pesticide can be found right across the wider habitat and can remain in the soil for many years. It is our belief that they have undoubtedly contributed to the decline in insect colonies.

Does the Minister recognise that more needs to be done to address the damage caused by pesticides? The fact is that non-neonicotinoid pesticides can cause just as much harm. A much more fundamental review of their use is needed—a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, that we should always follow the science on this. That is why we need to make sure that our knowledge is as up to date as possible so as to apply the latest scientific information. With that in mind, I echo the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley: what has happened to the review of the UK National Action Plan for the Sustainable Use of Pesticides, which George Eustice promised would take place in the first half of 2018? Try as I might, I cannot find any evidence of it, but I am sure that the Minister can put me straight on that.

Secondly, when I looked again at the 25-year environment plan, I was disappointed that there was only a passing reference to bees and pollinators. That is not to say that the Government are not taking the matter seriously but it would be good to see some more joined-up policy development in that area.

I hope that the Minister will agree that in future we should move away from chemical-intensive farming and focus our research on less damaging ways of tackling persistent weeds and pests. We should aim to work with and not against nature’s inherent defences. Whoever commented that pesticides are quite expensive made a very good point. If we can only harness nature’s own defences and the benefits of inherent ecodiversity, we will be all the better for it.

Thirdly, interestingly, a 2016 study in Germany found that bumble-bee abundance and the pollination of wild flowers were higher in urban than in rural areas. Is the Minister able to say whether that is also the case in the UK? If it is, on the one hand it tells an alarming story about what is happening in the countryside, but, on the other, does it not also underline the importance of involving urban gardeners and public authorities in maintaining and cherishing our insect population in urban areas? This is where there is a need for better cross-government thinking on the issue.

The point was made that local authorities can play their part in sowing grass verges and parks with wild flower seeds. I take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, that volunteers, not just local authorities, can play their part in that. The noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, mentioned B-Lines. Plymouth City Council, for example, has taken that idea further and created city-wide bee corridors. The development of those sorts of activities should be welcomed.

Transport authorities also have to play their part. Network Rail needs to recognise its responsibility to maintain biodiversity on its land. So much more could be done to encourage the planting of wild flowers and pollinators on motorway verges, instead of the sterile scrubland that we so often have to tolerate. The Department for International Trade needs to fully understand its responsibility not to facilitate trade with countries that contaminate our food and our pollinators with the use of pesticides which are banned in the EU. How far are these cross-departmental discussions going to ensure that all departments, not just Defra, take the threat to our food supply and our biodiversity seriously?

Finally, on a more upbeat note, I pay tribute to the army of beekeepers in the UK. I take the point made by my noble friend Lord Stevenson that “beekeeper” is probably a misnomer to describe dealing with what is essentially a very independent and untameable species. Nevertheless, the volunteers who keep bees play a very important part in helping biodiversity. Their numbers have doubled in five years, with nearly 130,000 colonies registered in the National Bee Unit’s database, which is to be welcomed. As noble Lords have said, the quality of their honey and their individual flavours is one more reminder of our rich biodiverse heritage, which we squander at our peril. The noble Lord, Lord Marland, made the point that beekeeping, in addition to making a huge contribution, also helps their own sanity.

Will the Minister take this opportunity to say what more his department is doing to support the beekeepers so that wild and honey bees can both play their part in sustaining our unique but dwindling ecosystem for the future?