Decline in Bee Population

Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 8th June 2009.

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Debate resumed on motion:

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 for Agriculture and Rural Development to invest in local research into bee health and to publish a bee health strategy. — [Mr Cree.]

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

I support the motion and congratulate Mr Cree for proposing it. A country boy like me is well aware of the issues and the changes. However, urban dwellers should also be aware of those issues. I recall that, when I was a young boy taking my holidays in Strabane and Clady, my aunt Isobel kept honeybees. I was aware then that the ecosystem in the countryside was clearly balanced, and that honeybees and bumblebees played a crucial role.

There are 18 true species of bumblebee in the UK, many of which are threatened by habitat loss and other changes in the countryside. Six species remain relatively common, while others have declined to varying degrees. Those who are into bees, as I know some Members are, will be aware of two species, the great yellow bumblebee and the shrill carder bee, which are of particular concern, because their populations have been almost completely decimated.

Bees are the major pollinators of most of our wild flowers, and if they continue to disappear, those plants will set less seed, resulting in sweeping changes to the countryside, which may come to be dominated by a different range of plants. Our countryside could lose its colour if rare plants disappear. That is a fact; it is not made up. There is evidence that that process is already under way, and that is why the motion is so important. Those changes will have catastrophic knock-on effects on the wildlife that depends on those plants.

At home, we always try to set aside and maintain habitat land for birds, flora and bees. Bumblebees are of enormous commercial importance. Many arable and horticultural crops depend on bumblebees for pollination to varying degrees. Oilseed rape can set adequate seed without bumblebees, provided there are sufficient honeybees, but other crops, such as broad, field and runner beans and soft fruit, depend on them. It is clear that bees have a crucial part to play in the countryside, not just for honey production, but for the balance that they help to maintain.

The total value of Europe’s insect pollinators is estimated at some €14·2 billion. That cannot be ignored. Crop yields are already falling in parts of the countryside; it is essential that we conserve our remaining bumblebee populations, and, if possible, restore them to their past abundance. That cannot be achieved with existing nature reserves.

It is very important that we understand how the bumblebee and honeybee work. To support a healthy population, large tracts of land must be managed sympathetically, and UK nature reserves are too small in isolation to help as they should. Bumblebees, along with wild and managed honeybees, are suffering after a very poor summer last year. Honeybees have also fallen pray to a certain mite, and the parasites have decimated some of the honeybee population.

Across the pond in the United States, there has been a collapse in the number of bumblebees and honeybees; some bee-keepers have lost up to 90% of their population. The bee population has fallen by 30% in other parts. That shows that there is an issue, not just for Northern Ireland, but for the whole of the world.

We are asking the Minister to invest in our farmers and encourage them to adopt appropriate agricultural and environmental schemes to support the replanting of hedgerows. We need to recreate the hay meadows and flower-rich grasslands and use wild flowers and traditional cottage garden plants in gardens nationwide. I believe that the Minister has a role to play, and I ask her to put support systems in motion.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

Bumblebees and honeybees should be restored to the countryside.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the proposer for bringing the motion to the Assembly. It is a very important issue, and I declare an interest as a bee-keeper, on a very small scale, in County Armagh.

The bee population is very important to the development of crops. In County Armagh and in south and east Tyrone particularly, Bramleys, and apples in general, would fail completely if it were not for pollination by bees. Many orchard keepers use bee colonies to help with that pollination. Bees play a very important role in the entire infrastructure.

If the decline in numbers that has happened over the past few years continues, the bee population could be wiped out completely. There are many questions to be asked about why the decline has happened. Despite an increase in imports of bee colonies into the North, the population has declined by roughly 50%. That is dramatic, and we have to ask whether some of the diseases are being imported with the new bee colonies.

I ask the Minister to tell us what protection exists to ensure the proper inspection of imported bee colonies to try to keep disease out. We share a land boundary with the South of Ireland, but bees do not recognise borders: they fly, and can come here very easily. What effect has that had?

I find it strange to be standing here in Stormont and supporting the bee men for the first time. It is very important to recognise the role of Government in trying to alleviate the risk of importing disease. What links are there with the Southern Government to try to deal with the problem that they have? What can be done to ensure an increase in the population of queen bees and bees that have been native to Ireland over the years? We should be trying to increase those rare breeds of bees that are found particularly in County Cork and County Kerry.

A lot of pesticide is used. Besides sprays, there are various ways of protecting crops, such as wheat and barley, and orchards in which the bees are working. One must ask what effect GM crops have, particularly in countries such as the United States, where there has been a massive decline in the bee population. We must also examine the contribution that pesticides make to other problems that affect the native bee population.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. The issue of GM crops is very delicate. Does the Member agree that the introduction of anything that is alien to the countryside upsets the ecosystem and the balance of the countryside and, therefore, contributes to the problem that we have with the bee population?

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member will have an extra minute in which to speak.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

I agree with the Member; once people start to alter the infrastructure of the countryside, of which bees are an important element, there will be problems. One can also question the new technologies that are being used, such as those that use airwaves, and the effect that they have on bees’ homing systems. Bee-keepers often find that entire swarms have been wiped out or have not returned to their hives; there is a sense that the swarms have lost their direction and have not been able to get back to their hives. In some cases, new swarms go into empty hives and build their own populations. Where have those swarms come from, and what infections or diseases do they bring with them?

The big issue is to ask what the Department can do, despite all the problems, to protect the bees, support the farmers who keep bees, and to encourage the growth of the bee population. We must ensure that we try to encourage the growth and rebuilding of colonies that have been wiped out by disease or its effects. That is crucial if we are to maintain the ecosystem and help the environment.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has published its report and sent it out for consultation, and the feedback from that will start to indicate what can be done locally. It is also important to create links at a North/South ministerial level to tie together the two parts of Ireland so that there is a structure that helps to develop the bee population by stopping its decline and increasing its number. Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Thomas Burns Thomas Burns Social Democratic and Labour Party

I support the motion, and I thank Mr Cree and Mr Elliott for tabling it.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on the issue. I have a great personal interest in the subject, because my father was a bee-keeper. In fact, at one time, he was president of the Ulster Beekeepers’ Association. My brother also has bees and is a member of the Randalstown and District Beekeepers’ Association.

Like many other Members, I have received lots of letters and emails from various bee-keepers and interested organisations recently, most of which say that the situation is going from bad to worse. That is very worrying, because we know how important bees are to the agriculture industry and the natural environment. The true economic value of bees is much greater than their value as honey and wax producers. As other Members said, without bees, we would have reduced levels of crops, such as apples, pears, strawberries and raspberries. Bees are essential, because they pollinate those crops.

We need such local produce on our supermarkets’ shelves, so it is vital that we maintain a healthy population of bumblebees and honeybees. Members will know that honeybees live in managed colonies and hibernate over the winter. In contrast, in the bumblebee population, only the queen bee hibernates over the winter and builds a new colony each year from scratch. It is important to have a strong hive of honeybees that are ready to go out and pollinate in the spring, because it takes much longer for bumblebees to increase in number and go out and pollinate. The bumblebee does not really come into action until much later in the very late spring or early summer.

Colony collapse disorder and the shrinking bee population is a complex issue. The Minister said in most of her correspondence that the decline in bee numbers is down to recent cold weather. One cannot argue with that, but it is not the only factor. One cannot produce bees and honey with summers such as we have had in the past two years; that is nearly impossible. We need good, hot weather for honey production. However, in light of the decline in the bee population worldwide, it is hard to accept that bad weather is the only reason or that it is temporary. There is more to it than that. We need to find out what the problem is locally and why the decline is happening.

There has been a great deal of speculation and research worldwide on various theories. That research identified a number of factors that are reducing the number of honeybees, and other Members spoke about that. In particular, there is general agreement that the misuse and over-use of pesticides is weakening bees’ immune systems, leaving them too weak to fight off diseases such as varroa. However, without more research we will not know for sure what is happening locally, and why.

The motion calls on the Minister to invest in research and to publish a bee health strategy; I entirely agree with that. Some good work has been done in England and Wales, and DEFRA has committed a great deal of extra money for research. About £10 million is available to study the problem in England and Wales.

We have also seen the creation of a national bee unit and a national bee database and an increased partnership approach between bee-keepers and government. Those actions have been warmly welcomed by the British Beekeepers’ Association. However, we have not seen such decisive action locally, and, from the correspondence that I have received, certain local bee-keepers are not happy with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker 3:45 pm, 8th June 2009

I ask the Member to bring his remarks to a close.

Photo of Thomas Burns Thomas Burns Social Democratic and Labour Party

They want more funding, and we need to get in place a plan that sets out a strategy for the next 10 years.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

A number of Members made clear their country credentials. I come to the debate as a city slicker, and make no apologies for it.

The honeybee population is hugely important for agriculture, the wider economy and, more importantly than we perhaps recognise, for the environment. It is easy for those of us who live in the city to become detached from the environment, and it is important that we are aware of how fragile the environment is.

Honeybees contribute directly to local food production through honey but also indirectly through crop pollination, and people often do not recognise the significance of that to the economy. That should not be underestimated, because the honey industry is worth between £10 million and £30 million a year. In addition, bee-keeping is worth about £165 million to crop production. Bees have, therefore, a major impact on the economy and on agriculture.

Honeybees also play a critical role in maintaining the fragile balance of biodiversity in protecting the natural environment. The factors that have been blamed for causing a decrease in the bee population such as very wet summers and warmer winters can also affect other pollinators, which could have a significant knock-on effect for the natural environment.

Some Members said that the causes of the decline in the bee population are much contested, and there are many and varied suggestions. Members mentioned pests, and they spoke about pesticides that are picked up when bees are pollinating crops. There is also a debate about whether genetic narrowing of the species, as people breed species that are less aggressive but better honey producers, can lead to species that are more susceptible to disease. That is a consideration.

Equally, importing bees to supplement the local population creates biosecurity issues. Therefore, several factors need to be considered.

Another aspect is loss of habitat, and people in the city can see that happening quite quickly. There has been a rapid decline in open spaces, hedgerows and the wildflower population in the surrounding countryside. As cities and towns expand, we lose nutritional balance and habitat. I have already referred to the weather, and perhaps that is another impact of climate change that has not been fully considered.

Given all the competing factors, it is important that good qualitative research is undertaken. We need an evidence base as we bring forward proposals on how to address the problem. However, it is not just a local problem. Colony collapse disorder has decimated the bee industry in the USA. DEFRA has said that the situation is not yet as serious in the UK, but we need to be aware that there have been dramatic decreases in the bee population.

The ‘Honeybee Regional Report for Northern Ireland 2008’ indicates a notable drop in the bee population. There is debate about whether that was caused by weather conditions in the previous year, and, if it was, the situation could be replicated this year. There is a significant issue that needs to be addressed. DEFRA has brought forward its bee plan, to which it has allocated resources; it will take different measures to examine the issue of pests, promote good bee-keeping standards and deal with biosecurity issues as we try to supplement the population.

People have mentioned that, locally, the Minister and the Department have been considering the matter. The Minister and the Department have committed to move on a bee health strategy following the finalisation of the DEFRA report. I add my party’s support to the calls that have been made in the Chamber for that to be done quickly. The dangers of a continued decimation of the bee population have not been fully contemplated. It does not affect only the countryside; it affects the survival of all of us.

Photo of Lord Wallace Browne Lord Wallace Browne DUP

I support the motion. As an urban dweller, I cannot pretend to be an expert on the matter. However, as a qualified zoologist, I have studied the life of sandhoppers and the sex life of bees. Therefore, I fully appreciate the important role that they play in agriculture.

There is no doubt that all the scientific evidence indicates that the honeybee is under threat. The question is how that should be dealt with, particularly in Northern Ireland, where the honeybee is vital to the economy. We have heard that colonies have been utterly devastated by many diseases, particularly from varroa, protozoan, viruses and bacteria. Up to one third of our food crops require pollination, and bees are probably the nation’s main pollinators. Crops, trees, apples, raspberries, pears and legumes all need to be pollinated.

The failure of the pollination cycle is estimated to have cost many hundreds of millions of pounds throughout the United Kingdom. Indeed, in Northern Ireland, the apple industry alone is worth millions of pounds each year. What is required to address the serious situation? Something needs to be done quickly. Money can be devoted to research, but it will be a long time before that research yields an outcome. We must also question whether the allocation of more money to research is a cost-effective approach.

The United Kingdom Government have already made welcome progress towards funding the research that is necessary to modify bee-keeping and thus arrest the dramatic loss of bees and colonies. They have announced that many millions of pounds will be spent on research for pollinators such as bees, butterflies and other insects. That funding was not exclusive to DEFRA; it included various agencies and the Scottish Government, which have taken a lead role. Therefore, I will be grateful if the Minister will assure us that money will be forthcoming to fund similar research programmes in Northern Ireland that will help to stop the decline of the bee colonies.

As I said, bees are very important to the apple industry here, which is a multi-million pound EU industry under threat. Research will take time, but one third of Ireland’s bee species is in serious decline and the apple industry here relies on them, so we need to show the same urgency here as is being shown in England and Scotland. Has the Minister had talks with her Scottish counterparts to find out how Scotland is tackling the problem and how we could work together and share vital information to speed up an outcome?

It is vital that an integrated approach is adopted so that research can be carried out. We do not really know why the bee population has declined. There are many factors, but no simple answer; it could be due to new farming practices. We know that wheat and barley fields have fewer weeds due to the use of insecticides and that the use of clover has decreased. I ask the Minister whether there is co-operation between, for example, the Planning Service and the Department of Agriculture to encourage the planting of trees, the growing of clover and the control of insecticides. A co-ordinated policy is required.

Another aspect that should be examined is the restriction of the movement of bees for breeding purposes. Has that been considered? It is vital that we have an integrated pest and hive management strategy along with money for research. I do not know if we have bee inspectors in Northern Ireland: if we do, how many are there, how are they trained, and what reports do they produce? If we do have bee inspectors, it is important that they have appropriate training. There are many bee-keepers here and they need to be trained in good practice. I support the motion.

Photo of Willie Clarke Willie Clarke Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I too thank the Members who brought the issue to the Floor of the House. I support the motion and, like Mr Molloy, I never thought that I would be standing in Stormont supporting the bee men, but there you go.

On a serious note, Albert Einstein once speculated that if the bee were to disappear from the surface of the globe then humans would only have four years of life left. Scientists have said that that is a myth: it may be, but it is food for thought.

What are the honeybees trying to tell us? Are they warning us to be more conscious of our environment and manage our use of pesticides, particularly insecticides, more appropriately? As has been said, one third of the food produced is due to the work of honeybees serving as vital pollinators, yet food creation may be severely impacted by colony collapse disorder. The registered bee population on these islands has shrunk by between 10% and 15%, but the real reduction may be much greater.

There are fears that a Europe-wide shortage of bees could affect crop pollination and food production. As Mr Molloy outlined earlier, in America, many esteemed scientists believe that exposure to genetically engineered crops and their plant-produced pesticides merit serious deliberation as the cause or factor in the development and spread of colony collapse disorder. Two of the threats most commonly blamed for weakening bee colonies are insecticides and the deadly varroa mite. The trend of higher than normal rates of death dates back to 2002.

Pesticides and herbicides used in farming and on lawns can weaken bees. I understand that pesticides used on plants do not kill bees but hamper their sense of direction and leave them unable to find their way back to their hives. Many factors could be working together. It could be a combination of bad weather, as some Members said, chemicals, parasites, viruses, microwaves coming from mobile phone masts, handsets or satellite equipment. Various factors could be responsible for the decline.

Albert Einstein said that no bees would result in there being no people. One third of European food crops rely on bees for pollination, as do some 250 species of flowering plants, many of which are crucial to world agriculture. Bees increase the yields of approximately 90 crops, such as apples, blueberries, cucumbers and raspberries by as much as 30%. Without bees, many fruits and vegetables would become scarce and expensive. In addition, many conventional medicines and alternative remedies come from flowering plants, and cotton is another essential product that is pollinated by the bee.

However, not only humans but birds and small mammals that feed on the berries and seeds that rely on bee pollination would suffer. An increased knowledge is required of how the problem affects insects such as bees, wasps and butterflies, and particularly whether it is due to climate change, because bumblebees, honeybees and other pollinators are important to Ireland’s economy.

Is nature giving us a wake-up call on how precious are our habitats? Is the decline in the bee population the sting in the tail because we have disregarded the environment? To halt the recent decline requires the immediate improvement of habitats, and everyone can play a part in that. Gardeners, farmers and councils can help, and as a Member opposite said, schools and community groups can develop wild flower gardens. Indigenous bees must be protected from diseases that may be carried by imported bees, and work must be carried out on an all-island strategy for bee health.

In conclusion, there are many areas of ambiguity, but it is clear that there must be a greater focus on sustainable living, which has implications for intense farming practices. The shift to organic farming must continue. A bee strategy must be developed, and more all-island research must be carried out on the decline of the bee population. Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of P J Bradley P J Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party 4:00 pm, 8th June 2009

The disappearance of the honeybee yet again poses the question of which Minister should take the lead: is it an agricultural, environmental or health issue?

Someone once said that if bees were to disappear, humans would survive for only a few years. Some people argue that none other than Albert Einstein made that comment, a view endorsed earlier by Mr Cree and Mr Clarke. Regardless of who said that, it cannot be denied that bees are important to humanity’s survival. Approximately 90% of plants in the world are known to rely on pollination for fertilisation and reproduction. Honeybees pollinate more than one third of the food that we eat. They also pollinate cotton, and it is hard to imagine a world without that.

In early May, the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development visited the apple country of Loughgall during the Bramley celebrations. Members learned about the important role played by the honeybee in the production of the apple crop, and we heard the management’s concerns about the late arrival of the bee in 2009. I discovered that 80% of fruit-producing plants, including apples, depend on bee pollination.

Many scientists throughout the world are endeavouring to address the problem of the disappearing honeybee, but none has yet come up with an answer to its decline. Some suggest that the extensive use of pesticides is to blame. If that is proven to be correct, the finger must not be pointed solely at the farmer. Those of us who treat our lawns or flower beds with cosmetic pesticides, or whatever fancy name they are given by the producers of pesticides or herbicides, are equally to blame.

The disappearance of the honeybee, or, to describe the mystery properly, colony collapse disorder, happens when bees leave the hive and simply fail to return. Some scientists are working on the theory that radiation from mobile phones, as mentioned by other Members, and high-tension pylons disrupt a bee’s inbuilt navigation system, thus disrupting its ability to find its way back to the hive. Others believe that global warming may somehow be responsible. Regardless of whether mobile phones, bad weather, global warming or pesticides are to blame, the seriousness of the issue should not be underestimated.

Just over a decade ago, the expected annual mortality rate of bees was in the region of 5%. Today, however, that figure has rocketed frighteningly to between 30% and 35%. In Ireland, almost 30% of the bee population has disappeared, and in 2008 alone, the decline in America was between 30% and 40%.

It should be recognised that no amount of human activity, however well intended, could replace the exclusive work of the honeybee.

I welcome and support the motion. I have considered what should be the final lines of my contribution to the debate. I suggest that the worldwide wealth of knowledge be pooled immediately. Only good can come from an exercise that involves expertise. If a method, or methods, can be arrived at that will enhance the recovery of pollination by bees, it will benefit bees, bee-keepers, farmers and humanity.

I suggest to our Minister of Agriculture that the provision of stock and bee-keeping material should be included in the list of items that the Department is drawing up that are eligible for support under the farm modernisation programme.

Finally, I call on the Minister of Agriculture, the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and the Minister of the Environment to embark on a North/South programme to tackle the threat that colony collapse disorder, if allowed to continue, will bring to the island of Ireland. I thank the Members who tabled the motion and hope that the seriousness of the issue will ensure that it receives prompt attention. As Mr Cree said in proposing the motion, there is no longer room for complacency.

Photo of Michelle Gildernew Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank Mr Elliott and Mr Cree for tabling the motion and for bringing this very important issue to the Assembly for debate. I expected a number of cheap jibes about the birds and the bees, but I did not expect the DUP to bring sex into it. However, I was interested to hear what Members have said, and I hope that the debate will add to the public profile of the bee.

The bee is one of the most vital and valuable insects on the planet, and I agree wholeheartedly with what has been said in the Chamber today. The bee plays a significant role in agriculture; it is a key part of many ecosystems that support our natural environment; and as we heard, the bee makes a very real contribution to the economy. Therefore, each of us is responsible for ensuring the preservation of our local bees. As the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, I am happy to respond to the debate, because I recognise its importance in my portfolio.

Before I discuss in detail the issues raised, I will highlight my keen, personal involvement in the bee sector. In March, I had the honour of opening the Ulster Beekeepers’ Association’s annual conference, at which I gave the welcome address on behalf of the industry. Last September, I was also pleased to give the opening speech at the international EurBee3 conference, which bee scientists from around the world attended and Queen’s University hosted. I have heard at first hand the priorities and concerns of our bee-keepers and other stakeholders, and I will continue to work closely with the industry to maintain and improve the sustainability and status of bee-keeping here.

The recent decline in the number of bees here has been raised by Members as an issue that must be properly understood in the context of a beehive’s annual cycle, which involves a completely natural loss of bees as the hive slows its activities over winter. The queen temporarily stops replacing bees, and pollen and nectar collection are suspended, with the hive surviving on its honey stores. In a strong and healthy hive, the number of bees will decrease from more than 40,000 to fewer than 10,000 individuals. Weaker hives may not survive the winter, and for that very reason, bee-keepers expect to lose a proportion of their bees every year. Bee numbers will rise again naturally in May or June and lost hives can then be replaced.

At present, an estimated 1,000 bee-keepers maintain about 4,000 hives in the North, and over-winter losses of between 10% and 20% are considered normal. At the Ulster Beekeepers’ Association conference in March, I announced an AFBI-led survey of our bee-keeping industry. The preliminary results from that survey show over-winter losses here of approximately 22%. This year’s losses are at the upper end of the usual over-winter drop. However, almost 50% of bee-keepers surveyed here reported no losses. Bee-keepers who lost hives attributed those losses mainly to problems with queen bees or to hives starving from there being insufficient honey stores. Only 9% of bee-keepers attributed any losses this year to disease.

Members have mentioned that the main disease responsible for increasing over-winter losses is caused by the varroa mite. The disease was first introduced to Ireland in 1998 and is now endemic across much of these islands. There is no evidence that the disease known as colony collapse disorder, or CCD, is present in Britain or Ireland. However, we will not be complacent, and my officials will closely watch events in other parts of the world.

I previously made a statement in the Assembly to that effect. As part of their normal activities, bee-keepers manage the effects of the weather and varroa mites on their hives, and they will replace weak or lost hives when bee numbers increase again this year.

Recent DEFRA research concluded that importing bees and bee products generates the greatest risk to the health of bees here, and many Members mentioned that fact. However, a ban on the importation of queen, or other, bees without justification would breach EU free-trade principles. In the same way that I cannot enforce a ban on bringing in heifers from bluetongue-infected areas, at this time, it is not in my gift to ban the importation of queen bees. However, at the most recent NSMC meeting, I discussed the matter with my ministerial counterpart in the South, Brendan Smith. I have not yet spoken to colleagues in Scotland, although I will. I would, however, like to see the industry implement a self-imposed ban, which I believe would be more useful and worthwhile.

Like other Members, I believe that our indigenous bee strains are probably better suited to our environment and weather conditions, and if that genetic strain is diluted, the bees here might not have the same resistance to some of the problems that are being encountered in other places.

In order to minimise the risk and impact of disease, my Department and AFBI supports the bee-keeping sector through inspection and advice services. For example, we have three bee inspectors, and a further two are being trained. Furthermore, we run bee-keeping courses, conduct the bee health survey, which is ongoing, and analyse bee samples that are submitted by bee-keepers.

A significant reduction in bee numbers would have an impact on agriculture, the environment and the economy. The production of the world-renowned Bramley apple is the core industry here that depends heavily on insect pollination. Like P J Bradley, I was at the Bramley apple festival in Loughgall this year, so I recognise the importance of bees to apple pollination. However, there are several other crops — such as strawberries and protein crops — that rely to a lesser extent on insect pollination.

Leslie Cree, Thomas Burns and Willie Clarke talked about the use of pesticides, and the Pesticides Safety Directorate’s code of practice for using plant-protection products contains specific guidance for the protection of bees. Individual plant-protection products with the potential to harm bees are labelled appropriately. Nevertheless, there is recognition that pesticides can have an impact on bee health and the bee population.

Leslie Cree and Francie Molloy emphasised the point that bees are the main source of insect pollination and the first step in the flowering and fruiting process. Without bees, we would be missing a crucial factor in the apple-growing cycle, and that would have a negative impact on Bramley yields. The same is true for several other crops, and that is why bees are invaluable to environmentally stable farming.

Aside from the agriculture context, through visiting wild flowers in our environment, bees are one of the keystones of most of the ecosystems on this island. All ecosystems are based on plants, and most flowering plants that require insect pollination are dependent on bees. As pollinators, bees ensure that fruit is produced for the benefit of wildlife on trees, wild shrubs and flowers. Therefore, if bees were removed from that equation, a vital link in plant production would be missing and the countryside around us, which is now so full of flowering plants, would quickly change for the worse. Furthermore, through pollination, bees support environmental biodiversity.

Naomi Long talked about the importance of bees for the city environment. People are known to have hives on rooftop gardens, and as long as there are plants to provide pollen, bees can thrive in a city environment. Therefore, we can all do our bit to ensure the survival of the species.

As many Members pointed out, bees also contribute, directly and indirectly, to the economy. The total revenue here from honey, hive products and pollination fees is approximately £220,000 per annum. Pollination, mainly of the apple crop, by bees is estimated to be at worth at least £6 million, and that figure does not take account of the important environmental value of bees in the countryside.

My Department recognises the importance of bees in that regard through its agrienvironment schemes — a point made by Jim Shannon. The new countryside management scheme includes a specific measure involving a pollen and nectar mixture that contains a mix of legumes flowering at different times to provide a continuous supply of pollen and nectar bees and other pollinators. In 2007 alone, under agrienvironment schemes, my Department helped to widen the bee environment here through the restoration of 570 kilometres of hedgerow field boundaries; the sowing of 360 hectares of conservation cereals; the planting of 1,700 hectares of wild bird cover, 70 hectares of traditional orchards and 620 hectares of other trees; and the maintenance of approximately 350 hectares of rough grass margins.

We are doing that as part of the countryside management scheme. However, it is not just our responsibility. I would be happy to talk to any Members who want further information about the pollen and nectar mixture for — as Willie Clarke said — councils, schools or our own gardens. We want to see more flowering plants enabling pollination and sustaining our bee population. I am very keen that we all be in a position to do our bit.

Moving onto DEFRA’s investment in research and its bee health strategy, £10 million has been made available for research in respect of insect pollinators, which includes bees as well as butterflies and moths. That funding will be made available to research teams here, and I encourage local research organisations to avail themselves of it, not least because of the particular expertise that they can bring on areas such as the apple crop. Indeed, Mr Wallace Browne made the point about research ability and the money that is available. It is worth stressing that the results of that research will benefit us all and inform our strategic direction on bee health for the future.

The strategy launched by DEFRA earlier this year aims to keep pests and diseases to a minimum, promote good standards of husbandry, encourage effective biosecurity and ensure that sound science underpins bee health policy and its implementation. Those are likely issues that we will consider in the development of our strategy.

In respect of the motion’s call on me to invest in local research and to publish a strategy, I can confirm that in addition to the support being provided to the sector, my Department has begun work on the development of an appropriate local bee health strategy. I have made a commitment to the industry that a relevant, challenging strategy will be developed for the good of bee-keeping, agriculture and the wider environment here. Given the island dimension, my officials will be engaging with colleagues in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the course of developing our bee health strategy. That will ensure that all-island co-operation is maximised between North and South.

As mentioned previously, a contingency plan for bee health is already in the final stages of drafting, and, once complete, it will lay the groundwork to securing and preserving the high standard of bee health that we have here already. The bee health strategy will seek to build on that, encompassing appropriate research and development budgetary considerations, subject to affordability and value for money.

Members should be under no illusions: I am committed to supporting the industry. My Department has been hard at work supporting the sector, and I will continue to work for a future where bees, and the industries and ecosystems that depend on them, continue to thrive. However, it is clear that positive action on that front should not be limited to me and my Department; we must all play our part in creating an environment that supports the bee in its crucial role.

I hope that the support measures and future plans that I have raised in my response have given Members an indication of the positive steps that I have taken to prevent a decline in the number of bees here and the consequences that that could have for agriculture, the environment and the wider economy. I would welcome the continued support and interest of Members for my strategy to promote bee health, because, as we have heard, healthy bees should be a concern for each and every one of us. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.

Photo of George Savage George Savage UUP 4:15 pm, 8th June 2009

I wish to declare an interest as a farmer.

I share my colleagues’ concerns about the decline of the bee population in Northern Ireland. Over the past year, one in three bee colonies has vanished. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK not to have a bee health strategy. In light of the significance of the bee to our environment, food production and economy, it is of utmost importance that Northern Ireland is not left behind. The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development made a commitment to produce a bee health strategy in mid-2008, but, a year later, has failed to produce it. I know that she was a busy bee in 2008, so I pardon her.

Approximately two thirds of the food crops that feed the world rely on pollination by insects or other animals to produce healthy fruits and seeds. It is estimated that one third of the food that we eat is pollinated by bees. The value of the bees’ service has been estimated at £200 million a year to the UK economy, and the retail value of what they pollinate was valued at closer to £1 billion. Simon Potts, head of pollination research at Reading University, said:

“If we had a serious loss of honeybees in the UK, inevitably food prices would have to increase. Essentially, we would have to import fruits from overseas.”

Northern Ireland has a large fruit industry, and apple producers are concerned about the decline in the bee population. My Upper Bann constituency is well known for its orchards and for the Bramley apple in particular, as was stated by many Members today.

It is estimated that the apple industry is worth in the region of £50 million a year, and the long-term decline in the number of bees would have a serious impact on that and other fruit industries.

It is estimated that bee numbers in the UK have fallen by between 15% and 30% in the past two years. That mirrors the steep declines and the emptying of hives that have been witnessed in the US, the mainland, Europe and elsewhere. According to Dr Robert Paxton, from the School of Biological Science at Queen’s University, the island of Ireland has 100 species of bees, of which approximately one third is in serious decline. That is due to normal winter decline and bad weather.

Reports from a number of countries show that an unusually high number of bee colonies have died or are dying. That is true of many European countries and north America. The cause of the colonies’ collapse does not appear to be a single pest or disease but appears to vary depending on location. In north America, a number of pressures appear to have combined to produce highly unusual levels of hive mortality. Research in England and Wales shows that weather conditions and a high level of mites and associated viruses have been the cause of decline in bee numbers.

It is worth noting that significant declines in honeybees have been recorded before. For instance, there was a decline in the USA in the 1880s, in England in the 1920s and the 1960s, and on the Isle of Wight in 1906.

Last November, the European Parliament adopted a motion for a resolution on the problems of bee-keeping that pressed all 27 EU Governments and the European Commission to take action. The Parliament adopted a resolution with 485 votes in favour, 13 against and 5 abstentions. The resolution called on the European Commission to put in place measures to encourage the creation of ecological recovery zones in parts of fields that are difficult to cultivate. The resolution called on the Commission, the executive body of the EU, to immediately step up further research into the causes of the decline and to make additional budgetary resources available for research.

In September 2008, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development announced that she would draw up a bee strategy in Northern Ireland. In answer to recent questions from my colleague Leslie Cree, she stated that she would wait until the publication of the DEFRA strategy before producing her own strategy. The DEFRA strategy was published in March, and we have not yet seen one here. However, I know that a word to the wise is enough.

The main research institute in Northern Ireland is the Agri-Food and Bioscience Institute, which provides scientific and laboratory support. Most of AFBI’s work on honeybees has been statutory, although it keeps up to date with research developments through liaising with the national bee unit at the central science laboratory in York, Dr Paxton’s bee research group at Queen’s University, Belfast, the bee research unit in the Republic, and through discussions with local bee-keeping organisations.

At present, it is unclear whether any of the investment made by DEFRA will find its way to Northern Ireland. We in Northern Ireland cannot afford to let our industry collapse. Many people want to see the advanced technology that we have in our Province used to stop the decline and start the wheels turning the other way. Our bee industry is very important.

England and Wales have a co-ordinated research strategy that is linked to bee-keepers and the Government. Northern Ireland is in danger of being left behind. I know that the Minister has given a commitment to producing a strategy, and we cannot afford, nor can we be allowed, to drift. I ask the Minister to tell the House when that strategy will be published.

I congratulate my colleagues for tabling the motion, and I commend it to the House. The motion notes with concern the decline in the bee population in Northern Ireland and the impact that that trend may have on agriculture, the environment and the wider economy; it further notes the investment by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in research into bee population decline in England and the publication of a bee health strategy for England; and it calls on our Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to invest in research into bee health and to publish a bee health strategy.

Nature plays a very important part in our society. Many of us have close links to the land, so we cannot forget that bees and insects have an important part to play in the health of the land and of society in general and that we also have an important part to play in protecting them. We welcome the support for the motion across the House. I will not mention all the Members who spoke in case I forget someone, but we welcome the support of all of them.

Question put and agreed to.


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.

Adjourned at 4.27 pm.