Bees (Welfare)

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 21 February 2024.

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Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

1. To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to protect the welfare of bees in Scotland. (S6O-03086)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Land Reform and Islands:

The Scottish Government takes the welfare of bees very seriously and works in partnership with NatureScot, Scotland’s Rural College, the national bee unit, Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture—SASA—and expert stakeholders to ensure that.

In 2022, we updated our honey bee health strategy, which aims to address the challenges that are facing honey bees and beekeepers and to achieve a sustainable, environmentally balanced and healthy population of honey bees in Scotland for pollination and honey production. The strategy is supported by our pollinator strategy, which sets out how Scotland can continue to be a place in which pollinators thrive, along with the actions that are needed to help to achieve that objective.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

Many pesticides are known to harm bees and other pollinators. Pesticides that are used in seed treatments have been banned in the United Kingdom since 2018 due to their harmful effects on bee populations. For the fourth year in a row, the UK Government granted emergency approval for use of those pesticides on sugar beet crops in England. Last year, environmental groups expressed the concern that those pesticides could return to Scotland if a proposed reintroduction of sugar beet crops went ahead. Can the minister confirm that no pesticides are used in Scotland that would harm bees and other pollinators, and that there are no plans to introduce them?

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

I can offer the member some assurance on that front: those pesticides are not currently used in Scotland and we intend to continue not to allow their use. I would be happy to follow up on that, as would Jim Fairlie, but I want to give the member that assurance.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

Despite the honeyed words of queen bee Pauline McNeill, one of the biggest risks to animal welfare is Brexit. The buzz is that Labour, after waxing and waning, has been pollinated by Tory Brexit policies that do nothing to remove the sting of losing scientific collaboration through a lack of a substantive European Union veterinary agreement. Does the cabinet secretary agree that, if Labour cares for the welfare of worker bees, it should join our calls to rejoin the EU instead of simply droning on?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Before I call the cabinet secretary, I assume that Mr Gibson’s language was intended to be entirely complimentary to our Ms McNeill.

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

It will probably not surprise Kenneth Gibson to hear that I absolutely agree with the sentiments that he has set out. We are extremely concerned not only about the impact of Brexit on our businesses and the agri-food sector, but about the way in which the UK Government chose to implement it. Only now are we seeing the beginnings of border checks on a variety of goods from the EU this year.

The exchange of research and intelligence is vital to effective border controls, which play a really important role in our biosecurity for bees and in so many other respects, and the only way in which we could have looked to achieve that was through a well-negotiated veterinary and phytosanitary agreement. That would have gone some way towards ameliorating our current situation, but from the approach that the UK Government is taking, it is not looking likely.

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

There remains a lack of knowledge among many people on exactly which bees need help. It is wild bees, such as the species that I champion—the bilberry bumblebee—that are in trouble, not honey bees. In fact, there are some situations in which honey bees can be a risk to wild bees as they compete for flowers and pass on diseases. Does the cabinet secretary agree that we need to do more to regulate use of managed bees by, for example, taking precautions to avoid hives being placed in protected areas that are important to rare species?

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

The member has raised an important point. He is absolutely right: the emerging scientific evidence shows that managed pollinators—even when they are native, as honey bees are in Scotland—could have a detrimental effect on wild pollinators in fragile ecosystems. That is why it is important for us to try to understand the potential risks that are caused by competition, changes in plant communities and disease cross-transmission, which results from the use of managed honey bees and pollinators under Scottish conditions.

However, the relevant scientific evidence that we need in order to address that is not currently widely available. That research, education and open dialogue with everyone involved in the area and our key stakeholders will be key to our fully understanding and then trying to mitigate some of those risks.