UK Bee Population

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 14th November 2017.

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Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham 4:30 pm, 14th November 2017

I agree with that. It is also vital that we have happy farmers, because farmers are crucial custodians of the countryside. It seems perfectly possible to have a thriving farming community and a thriving community of bees and pollinators too.

In the vanguard of the fight to support bees and pollinators are our nation’s beekeepers; I am pleased to say that their numbers are growing. In 2013, according to the National Bee Unit’s database, there were over 29,000 beekeepers in England, managing around 126,000 colonies. That is nearly double compared with 2008. I pay tribute to the Gloucestershire Beekeepers Association in Uckington near Cheltenham, which does such excellent work.

I am proud too of the Government’s role in this field. It is good news that the Government have spent between £1.5 million and £2 million on protecting honey bees in each of the last five years. That has included tackling disease outbreaks and monitoring for exotic pests such as the Asian hornet. An enormous amount of good work is being done via the National Pollinator Strategy, launched in 2014, which is a 10-year plan to

“improve the state of our bees and other pollinating insects”.

That includes working with farmers and the public to expand availability of food and habitat resources and so on.

In the time available, I will turn to the neonicotinoid debate, which has been a difficult one. In December 2013 the EU restricted the use of three neonicotinoids on a number of crops attractive to bees, including oilseed rape, following concerns that queen bees exposed to the pesticide were 26% less likely to be able to start a new colony. However, at that stage the science was rudimentary at best and the UK did not follow suit. Since then, the evidence base has grown dramatically. A pan-European study in June 2017, which covered a crop area equivalent to 3,000 football pitches in the UK, Germany and Hungary, found that increasing levels of neonicotinoid residues in the nests of wild bee species were linked with lower reproductive success, and that exposure to treated crops reduced the overwintering success of honey bee colonies.

When, earlier this year, the European Commission proposed further restricting the use of those pesticides to plants that spend their entire life cycle in permanent greenhouses, the expert advisory committee backed its decision. As I have already indicated, it is important to take account of the impact on farmers. I was pleased to note that, in the first year without access to these seed treatments, UK oilseed rape yield increased by 6.9%, according to Friends of the Earth.

As we prepare to leave the EU, I believe that now is not the time to roll back measures to protect our bees. Instead, we should enhance them. As I have already indicated, there is already a strong platform to build on, but we must go further. The national pollinator strategy, which currently supports pollinators through the mandatory and incentivised common agricultural policy measures, can be made to operate more widely still. Farmers and growers across pastoral, mixed and arable farmland are ideally placed to improve the quantity and quality of flower-rich habitats. Let us use our new freedoms to make full use of that potential. Agri-environment schemes such as buffer strips, hay meadows and wildflowers can and should make a huge difference.

As we look to the future, we must create a country that cherishes and promotes biodiversity. We must recognise that quality of life is measured not purely in pounds, shillings and pence but in the quality of our environment and the richness of the plants and animals we encounter on a walk down the Honeybourne railway line in my constituency or high up on the Cotswold escarpment. Let us continue to do everything we can to reverse the decline of our pollinators. If we carry on with that vital work, we can ensure that the broad, sunlit uplands that we all want future generations to inherit will echo to the sound of the bumblebee.