Decline in Bee Population

Private members’ business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 8th June 2009.

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Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP 2:15 pm, 8th June 2009

The “Buzzness” Committee — [Laughter.] — has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.

Photo of Leslie Cree Leslie Cree UUP

I beg to move

That this Assembly notes with concern the decline in the bee population in Northern Ireland and the potential impact this trend may have on agriculture, the environment, and the wider economy; further notes the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ investment in research into bee population decline in England and the publication of a bee health strategy for England; and calls on the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to invest in local research into bee health and to publish a bee health strategy.

The decline in the number of bees all over the world, but especially in Europe, poses a major threat not just to honey production but to the pollination of plants leading to food production. According to the Institute of Northern Ireland Beekeepers, about 50% of Northern Ireland’s honeybees vanished in 2008. The reason for their decline was given as colony collapse disorder, which means that bees disappear from their hives without a trace. Sir Roland Jackson, who is the chief executive of the British Science Association, tells us that the UK bee population has undergone radical change over the past few years and that billions of bees are dying from unknown causes.

Europe has taken the matter seriously, and at the end of November 2008, the European Parliament adopted a motion for the resolution of problems in bee-keeping. The motion called on all 27 EU Governments and the European Commission, which administers Europe’s common agricultural policy, to take urgent action. After a lengthy debate, Westminster supported the initiative and called for more urgent action to protect the bee population.

In the UK alone, bees contribute £165 million a year to the economy through pollination, and they play a crucial role in pollinating 90 commercial crops worldwide. It has been estimated that up to one third of bees in the UK have been destroyed by diseases, parasites and pesticides since last autumn. We need more research into those areas and a pooling of knowledge among member states. However, it all begins with a realisation that there is a problem. Nature’s number one pollinating machine appears to be breaking down and no one knows for sure why. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) made a start by making some £4·3 million available over the next five years to support the work of the national bee unit and bee health research. Some of the UK’s major research funders have joined together to launch an important new research programme. The purpose is to develop a better understanding of the complex relationships between the biological and environmental factors that affect the health and lifespan of pollinators.

The European Union is developing legislation that will include a clause on pesticides harmful to honeybee health. Some pesticides have been identified as harmful, and others are thought to build up in the pollen that bees take back to their hives and feed to their young.

Recent tests in Germany following large-scale bee die-offs showed that 29 out of 30 bees examined had a build-up of lethal chemicals in their bodies. Legislation is being developed and is not likely to be implemented in the UK until 2011, and the resultant phase-out of dangerous chemicals could take a further five years. We cannot wait that long before acting against killer chemicals; we need a complete ban on pesticide treatment while crops are in flower and a reduction in modified seed.

The British Beekeepers’ Association has done excellent work in trying to ascertain what is happening to the bee population. Normal winter losses were between 5% and 10%, but, in 2006, bee-keepers had mysterious losses of between 10% and 15% over the winter. Large numbers of bees were dying, and although similarities existed to colony collapse disorder, there were differences.

The association conducted a study of 10% of its 11,500 members and found that the average loss of bees was 30%. That is three times higher than the expected level. It was, therefore, essential for the public and the Government to focus their attention on that serious situation.

In the House of Lords, replying to a question on the subject, Lord Rooker stated:

“There is no specific information on the impact that the large-scale loss of honey bees would have on the economy although it could be significant.”

We must consider not only the loss of honey production but the loss of the country’s principal army of pollinators. Their loss could have a devastating effect on the pollination of crops not only in the UK but across the world. It would have an impact on the environment and wildlife that depend on bees to pollinate fruit, vegetables and seeds for their survival.

In Northern Ireland, for example, the cooking-apple industries in Armagh and east Tyrone are worth approximately £25 million and £50 million respectively to the economy. The industry relies entirely on that humble insect for pollination. The Prime Minister has drawn attention to the problem of global food shortages and high transport costs. Therefore, it makes sense for every country to maximise its potential to produce home-grown food; I am sure that the Minister will agree with me on that point.

Over recent months, I have addressed a series of questions to the Minister and have received very short responses. No sense of urgency was displayed, and the Department appeared complacent — if not in denial — about the existence of a problem. In fact, different questions from various Members of the House produced the same stereotyped reply.

All other parts of the United Kingdom have identified a problem with the bee population. In 2008, Scotland produced a honeybee health strategy, and in March 2009, DEFRA published a strategy for England and Wales called ‘Healthy Bees’. I am unaware of the Irish Republic’s approach, but it should be developed in concert with that of Northern Ireland; as most Members will know, bees do not recognise the border.

Conversely, the island status of Ireland presents a unique opportunity to keep out pests and diseases. The Department of Agriculture’s recently produced draft contingency plan for exotic pests and diseases is out for limited consultation, but it does not address the problem of the falling bee population in Northern Ireland. The plan does not indicate that any new research is anticipated, and it makes no reference to additional resources being made available.

We need a bee health strategy that involves all the stakeholders. It must embrace effective communications, surveillance and continuous monitoring. It has to be a short, readable document, dealing with the strategy rather than the details of implementation. The strategy must include training and high standards of husbandry. It must identify adequate funding for research and facilitate work in conjunction with other regions. The funding must be on a scale that matches the threat.

Imports must be regulated and effective measures must be put in place to prevent the introduction of further parasitical infestation, whether from the importation of queen bees or other bees. Serious consideration must be given to the use of pesticides on bees and whether they create pesticide-resistant mite populations or other parasites.

Many years ago, Einstein was clearly concerned about the humble bee:

“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

I am pleased to propose the motion to the House.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

As Question Time commences at 2.30 pm, I suggest that the House takes its ease until that time. The debate will continue after Question Time, when the first Member to speak will be Mr Jim Shannon.

The debate stood suspended.

On resuming —

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)