UK Bee Population

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:07 pm on 14th November 2017.

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Photo of John McNally John McNally Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment) 5:07 pm, 14th November 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank Alex Chalk for securing this debate on the importance of bees and other pollinators. I learned today that he has an impressive knowledge of the subject and a keen awareness of how important bees are. I compliment him on his genuine interest and wide personal understanding of the importance of pollinators and the waggle signal, which certainly will require further investigation by me; I have no idea what he was talking about, so I will have a look at that.

The National Bee Unit has identified the Asian hornet as a serious threat—a point well made by Government Members. Daniel Zeichner made an excellent point on replacements for pesticides, which have to be stringently tested for the safety of our pollinators. I agree with most of the concerns raised. Likewise, I have received many emails from people who are concerned about the threat to our bee population. Contributions today have been excellent, and I hope mine is up to the standard of other Members.

At least 1,500 species of pollinator insects live in the UK, including more than 250 species of bee. It is estimated that those pollinators add between £430 million and £603 million per year to the value of UK food crops, making an essential contribution to our food industry. Without doubt, they are essential for the survival of wild plants and natural ecosystems.

The health and strength of individual colonies has declined, making them more susceptible to disease and environmental pressures. It appears that overall, populations of wild pollinators have been in decline for the last 50 years. The generalist species, of bumblebees and solitary bees—those that can feed on a wide variety of plants—are thought to be maintaining their numbers and distribution, but the specialist species, which depend on specific plant species or nesting conditions, are thought to have declined and, in turn, populations of plant species that rely on specialist pollinator species have declined.

What are the threats to our pollinators? There seems to be no single factor responsible for pollinator decline. Instead, research points to its being driven by a combination of different pressures—mainly habitat loss, disease, climate change and pesticides—but how the effects of those pressures interact and how they affect individual bee species is poorly understood.

Pollinators, especially bees, rely on their ability to remember and navigate between nest sites and food sources to survive, so anything that disrupts those cognitive functions, whether pesticide exposure, disease or malnutrition, has survival implications. In relation to habitat loss, changes in land use and agricultural practices have reduced the abundance of both flower-rich habitat and nesting sites. Recent research in Germany and England suggests that the abundance of flower-rich habitat on agricultural land is now so poor that pollinators are surviving better in urban areas than rural ones.

However, pests and diseases are the foremost threat to managed bees. The Varroa mite is the world’s most devastating bee parasite. If a honey bee were the size of a human, a Varroa mite would be the size of a dinner plate. Even a single mite feeding on a bee’s blood is a significant drain on its health. However, it is the diseases carried by the mite that kill bee colonies.

Climate change is changing weather patterns and the flowering times and geographical distribution of pollinator food plants. Although devastating for some species, climate change is allowing others to extend their range. However, extreme weather events threatening colonies and their food sources are becoming more likely than ever. Wetter, more changeable weather in the spring and early summer limits population sizes and increases the risk of starvation.

The news that the Secretary of State intends to ban neonicotinoids should be welcomed, but this Opposition will be watching the implementation closely. If it is not an all-encompassing ban on this pesticide class, the danger is that users will merely switch to other neonicotinoids. The Government have argued in the past that the precautionary principle should be applied to economic risks alongside environmental ones. We totally agree with that.