UK Bee Population

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:17 pm on 14th November 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 5:17 pm, 14th November 2017

I congratulate my hon. Friend Alex Chalk on securing this debate on such an important issue. I also commend the work that he does in the APPG on bees. He gave a very uplifting speech. As he said, we Conservatives believe in conservation; we want to leave an environmental legacy, and our pollinators are incredibly important to our environment.

Often in debates on this issue there is a focus on pesticides, but as a number of hon. Members—in particular, my hon. Friend Huw Merriman—have pointed out, a big role is played by loss of habitat. In fact, a lot of analysis suggests that loss of habitat has been the key driver of the decline in our pollinators. As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, declines have taken place since the 1950s—long before neonicotinoids were invented.

There is no doubt that our bees face many pressures. However, the population data are complex. Many species of wild bee and other insect pollinators have declined over the last 30 to 50 years. A few have increased, but the net effect has clearly been negative. Three of our native bumblebees have been lost from the UK—the apple bumblebee in the 1800s, Cullum’s bumblebee in the 1940s and the short-haired bumblebee in the 1980s. On a positive note, that last species is currently being reintroduced to Kent and has become a real focus for conservation and land management action.

Similarly, there has been a decline in the number of honey bees kept since the 1950s. Again, however, there has been better news more recently. I am referring to the renewed interest in beekeeping over the last decade, with membership of beekeeping associations and the number of registered colonies on the rise. The number of colonies registered with the National Bee Unit increased from just over 100,000 in 2009 to 195,000 this year. Often, those are amateur keepers with a couple of hives in their garden. My hon. Friend called for Parliament to have some beehives. DEFRA is already doing its bit: we have two beehives on the roof of our building—Nobel House in Smith Square.

Nevertheless, we should not be complacent. Wild and honey bees continue to face many challenges and we must maintain our efforts to help all our pollinators. The area of wildflower habitat on farmland, as well as the presence of clover leys in our rotations, declined substantially after the second world war, as farmers responded to our need for food. Many of the insect pollinators that have seen the greatest declines are those that are strongly associated with these habitats. On our protected sites and through countryside stewardship, we are putting these habitats back into the countryside and I am keen that we continue to do this as we develop our new environmental land management measures outside the European Union.

I turn now to the action the Government have taken in relation to this matter, first, our national pollinator strategy, which my hon. Friend Julia Lopez highlighted. This strategy sets out how the Government are taking a leading role in improving the status of the 1,500 pollinating insects in England. It sets out how Government, beekeepers, conservation groups, farmers, researchers and individuals can work together to achieve common goals. It builds on current policies across DEFRA, which support pollinators, including habitat creation and public engagement.

On 9 November we published a progress report detailing the positive progress we have made. I am pleased to report that this included the valuable creation of new habitats for pollinators and improvements in our understanding of the status of pollinating insects. We have supported the reintroduction of species such as the short-haired bumblebee, whose conservation we know to have additional benefits for other species. Over 95% of our sites of special scientific interest and almost two thirds of the total area of our resource of wildlife-rich habitats are now in good condition or have management plans in place to restore them to it.

Secondly, I want to consider farm measures. We have introduced a pollinator and wildlife package to our countryside stewardship scheme, to help landowners provide year-round habitat such as flower-rich field margins. Since 2011, we have established more than 100,000 hectares of land that we are restoring to flower-rich habitat, principally through those agri-environment schemes. Forty per cent. of all 2016 countryside stewardship mid-tier agreements are delivering the pollinator and farm wildlife package. Last year, countryside stewardship applications increased by almost 45% and requests for mid-tier application packs are up this year. We have worked with farmers to make it easier and simpler to apply for the scheme and will continue working to improve it and make it simpler as we go forward.

Thirdly, on the Government estates, the Ministry of Justice planted over two miles of native hedgerows and created over 20 hectares of wildflower meadows in 2016. The Ministry of Defence has collaborated with organisations such as Plantlife, National Parks, the Wildlife Trusts and its own tenant farmers to set up suitable areas for pollinators to thrive, including through the creation of wildflower meadows.

Fourthly, in addition to supporting our pollinators with habitat creation, we have put in place measures to improve our understanding of the status of pollinators in our environment. We have established a monitoring and research partnership with research institutions and volunteer organisations. This partnership will allow us to gather further data on the status of our pollinators and the challenges they face.