UK Bee Population

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

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

First, I mentioned the countryside stewardship schemes. That is a £3 billion programme going to those environmental stewardship schemes during the course of the financial perspective that the EU looks at. That is a large amount of money, and, as I said, a lot of that is focused on those pollinator packages. Specifically on research, we have supported the Insect Pollinator Initiative, that is a £10 million research programme, which still produces high quality science papers that help us to understand the importance of pollinator populations to UK agriculture.

Awareness raising is also important, as several hon. Members pointed out. It is a key feature of our national pollinator strategy. We have established a “Bees’ Needs” campaign, including public events, talks, best practice advice and award ceremonies to demonstrate and acknowledge people’s work to provide suitable habitat for bees and other insects. This year, my noble Friend Lord Gardiner presented 17 awards to individuals and groups who have shown best practice in all areas of pollinator work. Winners included honey-bee keepers, community groups, farmers and schools.

As a number of hon. Members pointed out, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster, we also have to address the effect of pests and disease on our pollinators. As part of our support for pollinators, we continue to protect our honey bees through the healthy bees plan and the work of the National Bee Unit. Our team of bee inspectors visited over 6,000 beehives last year, looking for harmful pests and diseases. It is through the hard work of our inspectors that endemic diseases such as the foulbroods remain at low levels. They provide advice on good husbandry practices to thousands of beekeepers to help them manage other important pests like varroa. It is pleasing to observe the collaboration between beekeepers and the National Bee Unit. Registration of beekeepers on the National Bee Unit’s voluntary database is on the rise. It has gone up from 20,000 in 2009 to over 40,000 today. To support these beekeepers, we continue to aspire to educate and improve husbandry standards right across the country. This year, the National Bee Unit provided talks at 190 beekeeping events reaching some 9,000 beekeepers.

I want to mention the Asian hornet. My right hon. Friend Sir Hugo Swire highlighted this in an intervention. The training we have done has been of great value in detecting the Asian hornet. In 2016, we witnessed their arrival in the UK in an outbreak in Gloucestershire and Somerset. We also, as he pointed out, saw a separate outbreak in Devon earlier this year. Both incidents were reported by beekeepers and, through the sterling efforts of the Animal and Plant Health Agency, both nests were destroyed and no further hornets have been seen.

I want to turn finally to the issue of pesticides. As several hon. Members acknowledged, last week we announced our support in principle for further restrictions on neonicotinoid pesticides. There has been additional evidence in the last two years that they are harmful to bees and other pollinators. We have always been clear that we will follow the science on these matters. The advice from the UK Government’s advisory body, the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides, is that the evidence now suggests that the environmental risks posed by neonicotinoids—particularly to our bees and pollinators—are probably greater than previously understood.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham said that we were initially sceptical in 2013, as a Government, about the initial restrictions that were brought in. That is correct. Our chief scientific adviser’s advice at that point was that he did not believe the doses bees were likely to get would be a problem, but he was always clear that there should be further field trials. The first of those field trials was carried out in Sweden by Rundlof and others, and that concluded that there could be some impacts, particularly on bumblebees, and on that basis we moved to supporting the existing restrictions. However, in the light of subsequent, more recent proposals from the Commission, we asked the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides for its view. In particular, it looked at some evidence from Woodcock and others that concluded that there may be a persistence of neonicotinoids in soils, and that that may therefore have wider effects beyond the immediate impact on pollinators. As a precaution, we have decided to act on that. The committee was clear in its recent advice, which we have published, that the evidence is not that clear at the moment, but it is, it believes, reason to extend the restrictions further and that is why we have taken our current position.

Many hon. Members have talked about some of the unintended consequences and we must be mindful of those. There will more use of pyrethroids—greater use of those applications—which can also have environmental impacts and lead to growing resistance to the dwindling number of synthetic pesticides that we have left. It is also the case that we have seen an increase in the use of neonicotinoids in winter cereals, partly because other products, such as pirimicarb, were withdrawn from the market. This is a complex area. In the long term, we need to look at integrated pest management, with a wider range of approaches to tackle crop protection.