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Westminster Hall Debates 17 June 2008

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Bee Industry

11 am

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): Mr. Taylor, I am quite sure that, as the passions rise, you will contain us and keep us within the realm of behaviour that is becoming to this place. I thank my colleagues from all parts of the House for coming to this debate, because the future of the bee industry is one of the major issues in the country today as far as I am concerned.

I want to say something very quickly about the honey bee and why we are very interested in it. In 1973, Karl von Frisch won a Nobel prize in physiology and medicine for his pioneering work on comparative behavioural psychology and communication between bees. He was the first scientist really to discover how species of bees utilise sensory perception and he established the importance of their waggle dance for communication. I do not intend to demonstrate waggle dancing to everyone here today, but there are nine species of bees and nine varieties of the waggle dance.

Interestingly, as people will know there is a queen bee that looks after the hive while the worker bees waggle. However, the queen bee, like yourself Mr. Taylor, maintains a social order through the emission of pheromones. I guess, Mr. Taylor, that you never knew before how you maintained your dignity and command over this House. Foraging honey bees use the waggle dance, of course, to tell other honey bees at the back of the nest how far away and in which direction they will find the next source of nectar. As every schoolboy and schoolgirl knows, the bees go to collect the nectar and in so doing perform major functions, which I shall come on to shortly.

Researchers are now looking at how different bees communicate with each other. It has got to the stage that European bees can communicate with Asian bees, even though they are from different species. Asian bees learn the waggle rhythm that the European bees have manifested for many years and they can communicate information about distances and so on. They also recalibrate the way that they fly by their waggle.

It is not generally known that bees can also sense chemicals. They can be trained to detect explosives, drugs and even chemical weapons. That is not generally known, but I know that the Pentagon has been working on this use of bees for some years now and the sight of bees swarming around white powder is quite a classic thing that happens in this country too. So there is hope that, in that area of detection, we may find another use for bees as research progresses.

Beekeeping and research into bees has been going on for some time. The bee is a fascinating creature and this week I shall go to see the Norfolk beekeepers at Easton college; I look forward to getting up close and personal with the beehives that they look after. Of course, right across the world people go out and see bees. Bees have this image about them that they only sting; I want to dispel that image completely. Of course, they sting and if one asks a classroom of young people what they know about bees, they will say, “Ooh, they sting you”. However, when one asks the young people why they sting, they will reply, “Because we annoy them”. Well, that is youth today, I suppose; annoying bees seems to
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be a habit. It might be worth an antisocial behaviour order in a certain repressive kind of regime, although not here, of course.

Massive winter losses of bee colonies in the USA and Canada of more than 60 per cent. have been attributed to what we call colony collapse disorder, or CCD. Similar problems are now developing in countries in Europe, for example Greece, where losses are pretty high, which makes beekeeping rather unsustainable. The causes of such dramatic losses are not yet really understood and research suggests that there are a combination of factors: the parasitic varroa mite; the virus that the mite vectors or carries; and nosema, a fungal infection. All these factors, together with some kind of stress disorder, may be forming the lethal cocktail that is destroying bee colonies.

The UK is beginning to experience similar problems. Notwithstanding the ravages of varroa, normal winter losses are between 5 and 10 per cent. of bees. However, in 2006 beekeepers reported mysterious losses over the winter of between 10 and 15 per cent. of bees; rather large numbers of bees were dying. There were similarities to CCD, but it is still not clear that it is exactly the same problem, because there are some differences to CCD.

The British Beekeepers’ Association has done some sterling work in this area. Its study of the work of 10 per cent. of its 11,500 members revealed that the average loss of bees this winter was 30 per cent., which is three times the expected level. So, something is happening to honey bees across the world and it is now affecting bees in this country.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this subject before the House. It is an important subject and he is being characteristically charming and informative in proceeding with the debate. I cannot wait for the second half of his speech.

I wonder if the hon. Gentleman recalls that, on 15 May 2008, in another place Lord Rooker stated in answer to a question:

    “There is no specific information on the impact that the large-scale loss of honey bees would have on the economy, although it could be significant.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 May 2008; Vol. 701, c. 147WA.]

Does he agree that some sort of full cost estimate of the general impact on agriculture, food production and the economy of the demise of bees in this country would help to focus both the Government’s attention and public attention on what is not a marginal but a major developing issue in this country?

Dr. Gibson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention; the answer, of course, is yes, and he is trying to steal my thunder because I am about to refer in more detail to what Lord Rooker told the other place and the effects on the economy.

The prospect of losing our local honey supplies is bad enough, and also sad, but a deeply worrying threat is the loss of our principal army of pollinators; that is the real issue. The demise of the honey bee would have a devastating impact on the pollination of crops across the world, but particularly in this country. There would
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be a major impact on the environment and wildlife, which depend on bees to pollinate fruits and seeds for their survival.

As the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) alluded to, Lord Rooker stated in the House of Lords last November that if we did not deal with the current and potential threats we could lose our honey bees in this country within 10 years. In the same exchange, he confirmed the important economic role of honey bees. Work done by a large independent provider of environmental consultancy and rural services in 2002, which was updated last year, indicated that pollination by honey bees contributes £165 million per annum to the agricultural economy of this country. That is probably a low estimate, because it is based on farm-gate prices. A sample of just 10 crops, including top fruits such as apples and pears, which depend for up to 90 per cent. of their pollination on bees, and soft fruits, which depend on bees for about 30 per cent. of their pollination, and of course the ubiquitous and industrially important oilseed rape, which depends for almost 10 per cent. of its pollination on bees, shows the importance of bees.

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): As a beekeeper myself, may I say to the hon. Gentleman that clearly there are important economic impacts from the collapse of beekeeping, but surely there is also a much wider environmental impact? It is not just cash crops, important as those are, that are affected. A wide variety of wild species up and down this country, which we take for granted at the moment, would, if deprived of honey bee pollination, go into rapid decline. That would have a tremendously negative impact on British ecology and wildlife, and on the environment that we take for granted.

Dr. Gibson: Yes, the honey bee is central to that kind of interaction in the ecological life of plants and animals in this country. It would reflect badly on the way that we look at and revere our countryside if the honey bee disappeared from that kind of interaction.

As I have said, the honey bee is vital to the economy in all countries, not just to the UK economy. Of course, the problem of global food shortages and high transport costs has been highlighted by our Prime Minister. It is vital that every country maximises its potential to produce home-grown food, because that is becoming the big challenge, or at least one of the big challenges, for us in the agricultural movement in this country. Honey bees have never been more important for mankind than today.

Let us look at what the Government have done about the situation; of course, the Minister will elaborate on the Government’s work. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs invests £1.5 million per annum on honey bee health, of which about a third comes through support from the European Union. Of that total budget, £1.3 million is dedicated to running a statutory inspection service to monitor and control notifiable honey bee diseases, particularly foul brood disease. That leaves what I regard as the pathetic amount of about £200,000 for research. That figure has not increased but rather declined in real terms, as inflation and other factors have come to bear on the investment.

 

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The causes of recent increased honey bee losses are probably not related to currently notifiable diseases. Varrosis, for example, was a notifiable disease until
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2006, when the Government removed it from the list, basically, it seems, because it had become endemic in the population. No solution to it has been found. In fact, matters continue to worsen as the mite develops resistance to the key approved medication. We are faced with a situation in which honey bees are at increased risk from existing diseases, from new threats such as CCD and from exotic pests such as small hive beetle. Despite those heightened risks and unsolved current problems, DEFRA says that it is not prepared to find any more than the current research spend of £200,000 to confront the growing challenges and all their economic and environmental implications.

The BBKA presented a paper, “Beekeeping Research”, to my noble Friend Lord Rooker and the Department last October. It set out the urgency of the matter and proposed a programme of research. Lord Rooker met representatives of the BBKA last December—I was there as well. He flatly turned down the request for funding, notwithstanding the recognition that there were risks to and benefits from honey bees. Development of the programme was initiated by the BBKA when it convened its colloquium on honey bee research in July 2007. Key researchers, DEFRA representatives and research funders were present, and they debated the threats facing bees. There has been huge movement in recognising the problem.

The indicative budget for the research programme outlined in the BBKA documentation is £8 million over five years. The association makes the pertinent point that that is a minute cost when one considers that honey bees will deliver a more than £800 million benefit over that same five-year period, but only if we keep our bees healthy. DEFRA has prepared a bee health strategy, which is designed to help maintain the health of honey bees over the next 10 years. It has 45 pages, and is worth reading. The principle of a strategy is welcome, but it has some shortcomings. It attempts to transfer an ever greater responsibility for bee health to beekeepers themselves but without providing the resources that they need. Many of the diseases affecting honey bees that I referred to earlier are passed from apiary to apiary by bees, and that is outside the control of beekeepers.

Some principles in the strategy are good; for example, better information sharing between the Government and beekeepers—we concur with that. The strategy puts an emphasis on education, which is a major part of the BBKA’s remit, but the document is rather lacking in that it states that action should be evidence-based. The point that is being made by those who are interested is that we need more evidence and research, and that we need to gather scientific evidence, without which the strategy is doomed to fail. There are too many gaps in the knowledge base, and, of course, it will take several years to implement the strategy once it is finalised.

The issue is what we have to do now. We need to carry out research that will give us a chance to combat the threats. The proposal, with input from key researchers at Sussex university, Rothamsted Research, Warwick Horticulture Research International, Plymouth university and so on, involves short and long-term projects. It seeks to address current problems to do with varrosis and foul brood, not just the threat of CCD and exotic pests. The promising work at Rothamsted and Warwick university to develop a biological control method for varroa, an approach widely used in commercial horticulture
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and once funded by DEFRA, is, sadly, urgently in need of revitalisation. That is one of the largest budget elements in the plan.

In contrast, resolving the legal availability of alternative treatments such as oxalic acid through a more proportional application of the medicines directive requires good will as much as cash. The plan seeks to offset the deficit in bee virus research that has existed since Britain’s leading bee virus researcher had to be made redundant by Rothamsted Research due to lack of follow-on funding from DEFRA.

Other key elements relate to improved husbandry and breeding bees that are better able to resist disease. The BBKA beekeeping research programme offers a real chance to meet those challenges. It requires money, and while all sources of financial support from research trusts, the food industry and beekeeping associations should be tapped—I believe that they are prepared to put money in—it falls to the Government to shoulder the main burden of funding and to make co-ordination possible.

DEFRA has stonewalled the requests of the BBKA, which, as a result, has mounted a public campaign to bring pressure on the Government. This debate is part of that. The BBKA has collected 30,000 signatures in eight weeks, and no doubt that number will increase. It will present its petition to the Government in the autumn during a mass lobby by beekeepers of their MPs. I had a dreadful dream last night of white-coated individuals walking past Downing street with their smokers going. Imagine the panic that that would bring to Whitehall. We have to prevent that kind of thing from happening.

The public have picked up the issue—

David Taylor (in the Chair): Order. There seems to be a buzz of conversation on the Benches.

Dr. Gibson: Thank you, Mr. Taylor.

It is not surprising, given the extensive coverage on radio and TV and in the press, that the public have taken up the issue. One can hardly pick up a supplement these days without seeing bees sitting on plants and a discussion of the issues. The Government have to wake up to the green political capital that they could gain by finding the rather modest sums required to bring about a far-sighted programme.

I set out the reasons for doing the research: the current unresolved problems with varroa and foul brood, which are akin to foot and mouth disease in bees. We cannot leave it to the Americans to resolve the CCD problem. The US Department of Agriculture has been mandated by the Senate to do its bit—more than $80 million has been directed to CCD research—but we would have to look into co-operation.

Beekeeping practice in the US differs greatly from that in the UK. In this country in particular, there are few commercial beekeepers and they struggle to make a living. The £165 million contribution by Britain’s beekeepers is, basically, provided free of charge by the so-called Great British amateur. No doubt the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) is, for the purpose of this conversation, a classic amateur. This place is full of classic amateurs. I do not mean the House of Commons, of course—I am so sweet—but this country. It has many classic amateurs, and they do a great job. The UK
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and USA also have climatic and environmental differences, so we have to do our bit, however modest, to help deal with a global problem.

Another element resulting from the structure of UK beekeeping is that it lacks the resources and resolve to rebuild losses quickly when challenged by disease. Varroa arrived in the UK in 1992, and many beekeepers gave up beekeeping in subsequent years. Varroa losses were less dramatic than those that CCD will bring, and we should remember that even then some effective proprietary medications were available. Britain’s beekeepers are great amateurs. They could have played cricket for England—at one time, anyway. They keep bees because of their love of and fascination with the craft. There is not the commercial imperative to restock rapidly that exists in, for example, the USA.

I vehemently call on the Government to provide adequate urgent funding for research into honey bee health. DEFRA has stated that it awaits a business case for increased funding, but, in a sense, the Minister himself has made that case with his acceptance of the £165 million figure. The honey bee population is severely at risk, and we have to do something, or pollination and our agriculture will suffer. That “something” is to carry out research costing £1.6 million per annum in addition to the current budget. That is what we are calling for, and there will be great spin-offs from it. Any well-managed company could develop such research.

We do not need to look for new money. I believe—again, I saw it in a dream—that DEFRA has a contingency fund of £50 million, which the Minister might or might not know about. If there were the will, money could be taken from that fund to prevent an impending disaster. We cannot just wait for it to happen. When the air falls silent and we do not hear those bees a-buzzing in the summer time, there will be a change in many people’s views on the subject, and on why pollination of our crops and the ecological niche that the bee fills in the environment are important.

Every hive lost represents a reduction of some £600 in agricultural output, but that is nothing compared with the greater loss that inaction will cause to our food supply and the natural environment. The Government have said that they will listen more. They listened to us over 10p tax issues. Here is another debate for them to listen to. The issue has massive support from the public. It may not be up front but it is coming. Because we love our environment and our countryside, we ask for the Government’s support.

I will finish with a quote. Everybody who has ever been a scientist always finishes with a quote from a man called Einstein, who, I believe, was once a famous scientist. [Interruption.] A socialist scientist—forgive me for using that word. He stated:

    “If the bee disappeared from the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

That is a fitting challenge to all of us.

11.19 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), not only on securing this debate—I was
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also trying to secure such a debate but he beat me to it, and I am pleased that he was able to do so—but on his introducing a topic that is not a peripheral matter, although some would wish to describe it as such. It is not a peripheral matter; it is crucial to our horticulture and agriculture and to our natural environment.

My only criticism of the debate’s full title, “The future of the bee industry”, because although we know that bees are incredibly industrious and that there are some commercial beekeepers, who I suppose form an industry, the vast majority of the bees in this country are in the hands not of the 300 commercial apiaries, but of the 2,000 amateur beekeepers spread across the country, who are extremely concerned about the future of the bees that they own and love to deal with.

I have a reputation, Mr. Taylor, as perhaps do you, for pursuing quixotic subjects in the House that other hon. Members sometimes do not wish to trespass into. It could be argued that the future and the health of the bee population in this country is one such subject, but it is linked to other matters that I have pursued because, as I argue, if I do not who else will do so? The cider industry is important in my constituency. Apples need pollination and pollination is done by bees, so if the bee population declines, there is concern about the profitability and the productivity of a serious industry in my constituency.

As hon. Members have already said, we are not just talking about top fruits, which are a key part of the agricultural and horticultural activity in my constituency, but about wild and semi-wild species such as clovers and vetches, for instance, which are the principal nitrogen fixers. Without nitrogen fixers, we do not have fertile soil and the nice green grass that we need to feed our livestock and create our countryside. Bees are crucial to more than is perhaps commonly recognised.

The hon. Gentleman has already pointed out the various threats to the bee population, so there is no need to go into those in detail. He mentioned particularly varroa destructor, which is, as we now know, endemic to the point of no longer requiring notification, but it would appear that we are still no nearer to either a cure or a preventive strategy. He also mentioned nosema apis and nosema ceranae, which is now entering Wales, and he could have added tracheal mites or aethina tumida. He spoke about the syndrome—I think it is a syndrome—of colony collapse disorder in America. I do not think that we have yet seen a problem on a similar scale in this country, but all of us are greatly concerned about that threat, because it does not merely decimate the bee population, but halves or eliminates it. That is of great economic concern as well, because, as the hon. Gentleman correctly said, the value of pollination by bees is estimated at anything up to £200 million, which is a significant sum. That suggests that the Government would be wise to put in a much smaller amount of investment now to save that future loss. That is the critical argument that we have to advance today.

I want to reinforce the points made by the hon. Gentleman and say clearly that research is needed now—not the trickle of funding that we have at the moment, but funding on a scale to match the threat that is recognised by those who know about such things. That needs to be coupled with other measures. We need regulation of imports and effective measures to prevent introduction of further parasitical infestation, whether relating to
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the importation of queens or other bees. We need to consider seriously the control of pesticides. If we are creating pesticide-resistant mite populations or other parasitical organisms, we need to look at the interaction between the use of pesticides and the creation of the degree of resistance that is creating widespread endemic infestation and, perhaps, look again at how we use pesticides in this country.

It is argued in the United States of America that there is a connection between colony collapse disorder and the genetically modified crops that are being used there. It is possible that disease-resistant crops are creating the circumstances in which that syndrome can develop. We need to know about that.

Dr. Gibson: While the hon. Gentleman is attacking my favourite organisms—GM crops—let me point out that it is also said that mobile phone masts are allegedly implicated in the demise of the bee population in this country. Everything is implicated, but without research, who knows?

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman spent many happy years with me on the Science and Technology Committee. I am not saying that there is such a connection; I am simply saying that there is at least prima facie evidence that ought to be investigated and perhaps the United States is the appropriate place to do it.

We also need to say, on behalf of our agriculture and horticulture, that if we cannot turn back the tide of the reduction in the size of our bee colonies and the bee population, we have seriously to consider how we provide and encourage substitute pollinators, to preserve our fruit industries in at least their present state. That is, to an extent, a counsel of despair—it is certainly not what beekeepers want to hear—but we have to look at both sides of the equation. We have to deal with reversing the trend in the bee population and recognise the need to find ways of maintaining the profitability of our horticultural and agricultural sectors.

John Penrose: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that trying to find alternative insect pollinators is almost certainly a counsel of despair, for two reasons. First, honey bees are far more effective as insect pollinators at various times of the year, particularly in the early part of the season, which can be vital for some crops and wild species? Secondly, they are far more numerous than most other potential insect pollinators. Everyone mentions bumblebees, for example, but whereas there are a few hundred in a typical bumblebee colony, there are 40,000-plus honey bees in a healthy colony. The difference is enormous. Alternatives will probably be far more expensive, by a factor of 10, 100 or even more, than the hon. Gentleman proposes.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is correct. The key points are finding the reason behind the reduction in the bee population, seeing what effective measures can be taken to control infestation or infection, and disseminating the information, both on good husbandry and effective practice, whether veterinary or otherwise, to ensure that the health of the bee population is preserved. That will require investment. That is why we look to the Minister to say not simply that it is nonsense that the bee health programme has been reduced, which has been the line so far from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and that.


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DEFRA has been saying that everything is perfectly good, but it is not. We need a step change in investment in the investigation of bee disease if we are to stem a worldwide phenomenon that is lapping at our doorstep and has the potential to become a crisis, both for the insect population and in economic terms, for some sectors. We need to put in the necessary investment at this stage to stem it and reverse it. I hope that that is what we will hear the Minister say.

11.30 am

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to appear before you, Mr. Taylor.

When discussing this important topic, we should get some of the puns out of the way. You made one earlier, Mr. Taylor. The place is buzzing; it is swarming with interested MPs. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing the debate. His speech was the bee’s knees, and no doubt the Government will be stung by his remarks. I hope that they will not hive off research to the private sector, but I am somewhat piqued by their insufficient action so far. I agree with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) that we must consider other pollinators and so on, but I do not know whether we should call that plan B.

I like bees. They are useful—that is what we are discussing—and I just like them. I do not keep them, although I know that some hon. Members do. One reason why I like them is that they have the good sense to sport the colours of Wolverhampton Wanderers football club. In our garden in Wolverhampton there is a large lime tree, which is almost 100 years old. At the appropriate time at the height of summer—hon. Members will be able to tell me when it is, but it is usually around this time of year—that lime tree is buzzing with bees. They are not our bees, but come from elsewhere, and their number has lessened in recent years. We have lived there for 25 years, and we have noticed that in summer the tree buzzes less than it used to. We used to sit by it, hear it thrumming, and wonder what the sound was. It was hundreds of bees.

On where the UK’s bee industry is going, part of the general picture of adapting to climate change that exercises me greatly is what we do about wildlife. It is important not only to deal with the causes of climate change—CO2 emissions, greenhouse gas emissions and so on—but to face up to the reality that the climate is changing and will continue to do so, with an adverse effect on wildlife and other elements in our country. Bees may be one of the overlooked casualties of the climate change that we are experiencing.

I pay tribute to the work of the British Beekeepers Association, not only for its promotion of the industry, but its research and education of the general public and politicians such as me. I am worried that the UK is losing researchers because there are no jobs for them, and that the considerable expertise that has built up over many years in this country is being eroded because those researchers simply cannot get jobs, so they move to other fields of research or abroad.

 

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The Government must focus on research. They cannot solve all the problems facing bees and every industry in this country, but a general rule in any industry is that about 5 per cent. should be spent on research and
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development. We have heard today that bee pollination boosts the value of the top 10 agricultural products by £165 million, and almost all of that gain is free because most beekeepers in this country are amateurs. They are skilled in what they do, but they do not do it for money. They do it for love. We all benefit from that, and agriculture in this country benefits to the tune of at least £165 million a year. In round terms, 5 per cent. of that is £8 million.

I accept that the Government should not be responsible for all the research and development for the bee industry in the United Kingdom, but because it is, in a sense, a free industry, the Government should fund about half that research and development on behalf of society. They should put in about £4 million a year for something that benefits us all to the tune of more than £165 million a year. That is in contrast with the apparent amount—the Minister may enlighten us with different figures—of about £200,000 a year that the Government actually put into research; £1.3 million goes into inspection and so on, and only £200,000 is left over for research.

The contrast between £4 million a year and £200,000 a year is far too great. The British Beekeepers Association’s suggested figure of £8 million over five years is incredibly modest—that is no criticism of the BBKA. It is not a ridiculous amount such as politicians often come across when people suggest amounts because they believe passionately in a pet project. It is a sensible amount and, if anything, is low. I urge the Minister to consider it carefully.

John Penrose: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it might be helpful if the Minister told us whether he has had any conversations with his opposite number in the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is responsible for a great deal of academic research into all sorts of related areas? Some sort of joined-up government thinking might produce alternative pots of money that could be put to the excellent use that he is proposing.

Rob Marris: I entirely agree. It is not simply a question of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs putting in £4 million a year. The money should come from Government across the board, including the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, and it is arguable that the Department for Children, Schools and Families might kick in terms of education and so on. We need a cross-departmental push—it used to be called joined-up government, but I am not sure what we call it now—and Government as a totality should put in around £4 million a year for the necessary research.

Dr. Gibson: The Wellcome Trust has bailed out this country’s research for years through research councils and money that it has accrued, and it would be interested in basic research in this area. Quite a few charities have big sums of money that might help, so the Government might have to pay even less.

Rob Marris: The Government could take more of a lead in bringing in organisations such as the Wellcome Trust. My hon. Friend may recall that my ballpark
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figure is that society and the country should put in about £8 million, which is 5 per cent. of the industry’s low figure of £165 million. I posit that half—£4 million—should come from the Government, and that the other £4 million could come from the charitable foundations to which he referred and other sources, perhaps including European Union money.

The Government are underfunding research into bees, and that will be to our peril unless we do something. I am not an expert on bees, but I understand that there is only so much research that can be imported because we have our own climate, our own crops, our own way of doing things, our own strains of bees and, to some extent, our own bee diseases and infestations. We need to do research into the bee situation in the United Kingdom, and that research needs to be done by UK researchers in our own country. At least half should be funded by the Government, which is considerably more than is the case now.

11.38 am

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): I did not intend to speak in this debate, but I was inspired to do so, as I often am, by the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson). I cannot claim to have his expertise or that clearly shown by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), but I want to add my voice to those of other hon. Members and to plead with the Government to reprioritise the industry, as there is a number of serious concerns.

The haunting picture of a world without bees that the hon. Member for Norwich, North painted reminded me of Rachel Carson’s famous book, “Silent Spring”, which was published more than 40 years ago and launched the modern environmental movement. It was about the effects of DDT on birds and mammals. We could be looking at a similar set of factors now.

There is an argument about whether colony collapse disorder is being seen in the United Kingdom yet, but it is in Europe, so it is going global and it is a great concern. There may be a coincidence of factors behind that. Even in the United Kingdom varroa mite seems to be developing resistance, which is one problem. There is discussion in the United States that bees may be developing some kind of immune suppression syndrome, and that there could be a viral cause. Research suggests that when the Israeli acute paralysis virus is present in the hive, the hive is 65 times more likely to develop colony collapse disorder, so there seems to be a strong evidential basis there. On the other hand, Australia has that virus but no reported problems and no varroa mite. It is a very complex picture.

I have read the reports mentioned by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) which, he said, posited a link with transgenic crops. Now is not the time to engage in that debate, but it is a legitimate research area. Apart from a few papers that were written about 10 years ago, not much research has been produced in that field.

One of the problems that we face worldwide—I think this is true within in the United Kingdom—is a lack of genetic diversity within bees. As I understand it, there is a preponderance of the Italian bee. The issue is certainly of interest to Wales. We had a pocket of bees in west Wales that survived the last major collapse in the 1920s.
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The collapse started in the Isle of Wight and spread throughout the UK, but in Pembrokeshire and parts of Carmarthenshire, local populations of bees seemed to withstand that collapse.

The Pembrokeshire Beekeepers Association has been given some money to try to breed a local population that is adapted to local conditions. Perhaps developing such a population, which is also more resistant to varroa and tracheal mite infestation, is one of the future routes that we need to take. However, the association was given only £5,000 by the national lottery, and therein lies our problem.

The problem is very serious because all life is inter-connected. Bees are connected to humans. Obviously, the apple industry could be wiped out unless we take prompt and appropriate action. Organic beekeepers in America say that they have no evidence of CCD and it has been suggested that that is because they do not fumigate for the varroa mite or use pesticides. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said, the use of pesticides more generally—particularly neonicitinoid pesticides that have neurotoxic effects on bees and affect their learning and navigation abilities—could play some part in what we are seeing globally.

We need substantial and extensive research to help us to understand what is happening globally and to learn about the strains of disease, their effect on the UK bee population and some of the solutions—such as the one that I mentioned in Pembrokeshire. I am glad to see that the Welsh Assembly Government are playing their part by contributing £280,000 to the National Bee Unit. I urge the Minister to do more. As the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) said, spending money on research would be a good investment because it would prevent a catastrophe that would devastate key elements of our agriculture industry.

11.44 am

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Taylor, and have the opportunity to make a modest contribution to the debate on this important subject. I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing the debate.

I do not claim to be an expert in this matter, but I know what colour bees are. I am afraid that I need to correct the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) because there was an important factual inaccuracy in his comments. He referred to bees wearing the colours of his favourite football team, Wolverhampton Wanderers. The last time that I checked, their official colours were old gold and black, but the last time I saw a bee in close proximity, its colour was yellow and black, which more accurately reflects the colours of Hull City or, dare I suggest, the Liberal Democrats, with whom they may share an allegiance.

More seriously—because this is an important debate—may I say that my participation in this matter today has largely been fired by two things. One was an article I read some weeks ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) in the Daily Mail. That article has been helpfully included in the briefing pack. To anyone who has not seen this article and does not understand the general issues that are being raised today, I would say that it is a helpful introduction to the
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subject. Secondly, I have been contacted by the secretary of the Cheshire Beekeepers Association, who, I am proud to say, is a constituent of mine. He too has briefed me on the importance of the issue, and that is why I have come here today to support what the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) has had to say and to press the Government for some indication that they accept the need to give a little more assistance to the research that is needed.

[John Cummings in the Chair]

I think that we all agree that there has been, beyond any reasonable doubt, a dramatic decline in the bee population, which, as we have heard, is important to the natural environment, agriculture and horticulture. What we do not know, however, are the precise reasons behind that dramatic decline. That is why research is crucial. It is fair to say that the Government have a role to play—whether through DEFRA or another body. I hope that the Government will not turn their back on this important and growing problem.

We have already heard that the British Beekeepers Association has been seeking a research grant of some £8 million over eight years. As I understand it, the Government’s response to date has been to cut the research budget by some 20 per cent. There are now fewer inspectors and researchers involved in this very important area. Last November, Lord Rooker said that unless effective action is taken, bees would disappear within 10 years. That is a frightening prospect, for the reasons that we have already heard. To be frank, the solution to the problem is not the occasional very modest contribution from the lottery fund. I know that reference was made to the £5,000 that Pembrokeshire beekeepers have been awarded, and I am sure that the money will be put to extremely good use. None the less, we are looking for a lead from the Government and we want reassurance that the investment in research will be made. I press the Minister to accept that if that is not forthcoming and if we are seen to ignore the plight of the honey bee, future generations may not be quite so forgiving.

11.48 am

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): That was a quick change. I did not pick up that the Chairman had changed before I stood up to make a small contribution. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cummings. I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on obtaining this debate.

It has been said that beekeeping in this country is a pastime of amateurs. However, those amateurs have mounted a well orchestrated and well directed campaign. They have focused the minds of hon. Members on this very important issue, and I congratulate them on the work that they have done. Hon. Members have set out in great detail, and with a great deal of evidence, the fact that we are confronted with a classic case of DEFRA collapse syndrome. All the symptoms indicate that this is a classic case of doing too little too late. A lot of public money will have to be spent to undo damage that could have been prevented in the first place.

There is much evidence that bees are in decline. Certainly, in this country, 20 per cent. did not make it through the past winter, which is quite a high proportion.
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This morning, I spoke to a colleague, Karl Showler, who was a little more optimistic than I had anticipated. He told me that it was strange that evidence can be put in different ways and said that beekeeping was on a high at the moment. He also said that beekeepers and the quality of beekeeping had improved in recent years. He informed me that one of the reasons for that is that varroa and varroosis have meant that beekeepers who do not have the relevant dedication and expertise cannot keep their hives going and have dropped out of beekeeping activities. As such, he feels that the beekeepers who operate now are of a higher standard than he has ever known—and he has worked with bees for more than 50 years.

The varroa disease is now endemic, but Karl Showler has told me that he has examined his hives—he has a lot fewer than he used to—and he can find no evidence of varroa at the moment. I am not sure whether that is because he is so diligent in his work and uses oxonic acid to treat his bees. I know that some of the varroa mites have become resistant to pyrethroid insecticides. The ability of diseases and parasites to become resistant to treatments is one of the reasons why we want research to be done.

Varroa is a disease that we understand and that beekeepers have been able to live and work with. However, something else is going on in our bee colonies that cannot yet be explained. We have talked about colony collapse disorder in America, and I wonder whether that has the same cause or whether we are seeing a number of unrelated things. Is colony collapse disorder related to just one disease, or have a number been affecting colonies in America?

A point that has been strongly made is that the uncertainty about the disease status of bees means we should think carefully about importing bees into this country, as my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said. I understand that queen bees can be imported from New Zealand and Hawaii, but a number of people have told me that that is a dangerous practice and that we should perhaps think about safety first. Perhaps the Minister will say something about the restrictions on imports.

One subject on which research could take place and which would be profitable is bee breeding. The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) pointed out that work on that is going on in Pembrokeshire funded by lottery money. Research could be directed to the breeding of bees that are resistant to some of these diseases. Where there is disease resistance, there is less use of chemicals and less disruption to the bees’ immune system and their natural ability to forage and find their way around.

The hon. Member for Norwich, North—I think it is Norwich, North.

Dr. Gibson: The rough part.

Mr. Williams: The beekeeping part. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that there should be biological control work to find diseases or other parasites that are parasitical upon or can infect the disease perpetrator. That is another potential avenue. This morning, I was thinking about a book written by Theresa Clay and Miriam
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Rothschild, “Fleas, Flukes and Cuckoos”. The book discusses parasites and says that large fleas have smaller fleas upon their back to bite them and smaller fleas have lesser fleas and so on, ad infinitum. The research needed to find a biological control mechanism that can be used on particular diseases could be profitable.

The financial importance of bees and pollination has been mentioned. Insect pollination is an important part of the pollination process. Although there is self-pollination and wind pollination, the anatomy of many plants is designed to want or need insects to pollinate them. Indeed, some are designed to have only bees pollinating them, and I do not think we can look for an alternative pollinator for such plants.

Yes, pollination is important to agriculture, but it is also very important in terms of biodiversity in this country. Natural England has done much work on sites of special scientific interest and other protected areas, but if pollinators are not in those areas, the purpose of designating those sites will not be fulfilled. Perhaps the Minister can help me to answer a query I occasionally hear by saying whether bees are a species that have been in this country for all time or whether they are an introduced species. I understand that Natural England has said that bees, or hives, should not be taken to Salisbury plain because they are not an endemic species in this country and it wants to protect the ecosystem there. I have no further information on that—although I tried to find out something on it this morning. However, I think the theory is that bees were introduced into this country and are therefore not part of our natural ecosystem.

John Penrose: I hope to help the hon. Gentleman. I think I am right in saying that bees in one form or another are part of the fossil record going back many millions of years. It may be that the British or European honey bee is a relatively recently evolved species—I do not know—but honey-producing bees in one form or another have certainly been around for millions of years. They certainly go back well before Britain was ever legally invented.

Mr. Williams: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. It has been put to me that bees were present in the fossil record, but I do not know whether the species present in Britain today—whether the wild or domestic variety—is a new species. It worries me that because wild bees are not tended in the way in which those in hives are, a number of the pollinating mechanisms for a biodiverse ecosystem are being lost.

The National Farmers Union, which represents commercial beekeepers from the Bee Farmers Association, makes the point that

    “there are disparities across the EU with...access to veterinary treatments for bees. Considering the underpinning importance of bees to the horticultural and agricultural industries across the EU, the NFU calls on the UK government to take action to ensure UK bee farmers and beekeepers have the same ready access to veterinary treatments for bees as their EU counterparts.”

I ask the Minister to respond to that request.

The message is clear. Something unexplained is going on in bee colonies that affects our beekeepers’ interests. The amount of money allocated to research is small. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) did a fantastically complex mathematical calculation and came up with the sum of £4 million. A
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number of hon. Members would have liked £8 million, but the hon. Gentleman’s request is probably more reasonable. The message from this debate and the campaign launched by beekeepers is that the Government should do something now, or the consequences will be such that the position may not be recoverable. I too ask the Minister to consider increasing investment in research, so that we can find an explanation for what is going on and a cure for the diseases and complications now being exhibited.

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12.1 pm

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing this important debate.

I pay tribute to the British Beekeepers Association, which has done much to raise the profile of beekeeping and to inform us about the importance of bees to our country. It has put a tremendous amount of effort into its campaign, and its commitment to bee health is keeping the issue high on the political agenda. I understand that its campaign has already succeeded in attracting the support of 30,000 people who have signed its petition.

This debate is timely, and I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us of his Department’s commitment to bee health. The British bee industry is far more than just the sweet taste of honey. Who could imagine an English summer without the humble honey bee? Bees are amazing creatures whose value is easily overlooked. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimates that there may be more than 270,000 managed bee colonies in the UK, there being 5 billion bees in the winter rising to 16 billion in the summer.

As hon. Members have already pointed out, the pollination service provided by those colonies and bees could be worth about £165 million, and estimates of their total contribution to our economy is somewhere in the region of £1 billion. They also add tremendous value to our countryside, especially in pollinating wild flowers, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose).

Most of Britain's 44,000 beekeepers are not professional, keeping bees to make profits from honey sales and pollination services. They are small-scale hobbyists, whose numbers have been increasing. In greater London, for example, between 1999 and 2006 the number of beekeepers doubled to at least 2,000. However, because so many beekeepers are hobbyists, they are more vulnerable to the pressures now facing the nation’s bees. As their livelihoods do not depend on beekeeping, many may be discouraged from continuing if they lose their colonies. In the USA, beekeepers have significant commercial interests in re-stocking, but those incentives are simply not available for UK beekeepers. That is a very real problem for us at the moment.

British beekeeping may now be at its most vulnerable, as bee health is threatened on a number of fronts. We all know of the impact that varroa has had in recent years. The varroa mite has caused considerable damage to hives and bee colonies, to the point where it is now classed as endemic. Our bee population may now be facing the far more dangerous threat of colony collapse disorder. Having seen the destruction caused by CCD in the USA, some, including Lord Rooker in the other
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place, have suggested that if nothing is done there may be no more honey bees in the UK within 10 years. CCD may already be in the UK.

The BBKA has reported that its research has found that as many as 30 per cent. of our colonies could be lost during the winter months this year. That is twice last year’s the rate and three times more than is usual since varroa arrived in the UK. Throughout the country, beekeepers are reporting significant losses. In Peterborough, for example, the secretary of the Peterborough and District Beekeepers Association, George Newton, lost 10 of his 18 hives this winter. In Scotland, John Troup, another beekeeper, reported significant losses—100 hives, each of which should have contained up to 80,000 bees.

Given the enormous value of bees to our country, that is a worrying proposition to put to those who depend on bees for pollination—which is invariably all of us. The future of our bee populations can be secured only if those dangers are properly managed and if action is taken in the near future to protect bee health. Hon. Members who take an interest in bee health will be aware that there has been considerable criticism of DEFRA in previous years over the way that it has treated bee health.

The Agricultural Development and Advisory Service’s economic evaluation of DEFRA’s bee health programme in 2001 recommended that:

    “A method should be sought to protect small bio-security programmes of this sort from general attempts to cut public expenditure—so called salami slicing.”

Although DEFRA accepted that recommendation in principle, it is questionable whether the Department has followed that advice.

The budget for bee health and the National Bee Unit has been cut in real terms over the last few years, with spending remaining at around £1.5 million, half of which comes from the European Union. Bee health is in need of investment, and it would be helpful if the Minister were to let us know whether his Department will be making any extra resources available for bee health research.

The idea behind the draft bee health strategy is welcome. Indeed, the BBKA has been pressing for it for some time. It is important that a long-term strategy is put in place, that research needs are prioritised and that the responsibilities of beekeepers and the Government are clarified. However, all the effort and the time put into developing the strategy by DEFRA’s stakeholders will have little impact if the resources are not in place to fund the required research.

In a written answer last month, the Minister could not confirm how much would be allocated to bee health in this financial year, hinting only that the figure would remain static at about £190,000. However, as hon. Members will know, the BBKA has identified research projects costing somewhere in the region of £8 million. At the present rate of spending by DEFRA, it would take 40 years to cover all those research priorities.

It therefore comes as no surprise that, in its response to the publication of the draft strategy, the BBKA stated:

    “Most importantly the BBKA has no confidence in government’s commitment to funding additional work and services needed to keep our honey bees healthy.”


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It would help if the Minister were to let us know when research allocations for this year will be finalised, whether he will make extra resources available for bee health research and whether he accepts the BBKA’s proposals.

Rob Marris: I posited a figure of £4 million a year, and the BBKA posited a figure of £8 over five years. What does the hon. Gentleman think the figure ought to be?

Bill Wiggin: I think that the BBKA figure of £8 million is correct, which is £1.6 million a year over five years. However, the difficulty facing the Minister and all who consider the figures is whether that is an absolute amount and will it guarantee a result. We know because we regularly meet scientists that budgets tend to grow over time and that it would be impossible for anyone to guarantee that a solution would be found within that time. We recognise the constraints that DEFRA has to work under, but today we seek a commitment from the Minister that more funding will be available for the necessary research. I shall say why.

This year, two bee-related research projects will come to an end: an assessment of the effectiveness of the shook swarm method for controlling European foul brood, at a cost of £185,393, and the development of a monitoring system for the small hive beetle, at a cost £225,772. Those projects had a combined cost of more than £411,000. Will the Minister confirm whether an amount will be reinvested in bee health research similar to that spent on the projects that are coming to an end?

DEFRA is funding only two other research projects at the moment. The numerous threats that face our bee populations—varroa, viruses, hive beetles, foul brood and colony collapse disorder—make a compelling case for undertaking more research. Unfortunately, due to Government cuts, we are in a weakened position when it comes to supporting bee health. Bee research has not been given the priority and resources that it needs from the Government. As a result, we are losing crucial expertise in this area and we are now really feeling the effects.

In 2006, our leading research centre at Rothamsted lost some of the world’s top experts in bee health, including Dr. Brenda Ball, a world-renowned expert on bee viruses and pathology with more than 30 years’ experience, Caroline Birchall, a graduate scientist working on the biocontrol of varroa project, and Norman Carreck, a bee scientist and keeper with 20 years’ experience. Regrettably, that also means that the reference collection of bee virus samples has gone to Sweden. Because the Central Science Laboratory does not have the expertise or resources available, the progress that those scientists could have made has been lost, and there is a vacuum that needs to be filled.

By contrast, a greater commitment has been made to researching bee health in other countries. In the USA, $80 million from the Government and industry is being invested into researching bee health and colony collapse disorder. Although it might be helpful to see the outcomes of that research, we should remember that it is no substitute for research in this country because that can focus on the localised conditions, environment and climate of the British Isles.


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I welcome the efforts of the BBKA to press DEFRA to consider providing the resources necessary to give bee health the research priority it needs and its efforts in finding from other sources, such as the Wellcome Trust, which was mentioned.

It is important that the Government do not try to hide from their responsibilities to beekeepers and the wider economy. We are looking for leadership, not spending commitments. This is one of the most serious issues facing British agriculture and, as such, the Minister needs to guarantee that the Government will listen to the responses of the BBKA and others to the bee health strategy, so that it can be implemented as soon as possible and so that it is a workable solution to the challenges faced by beekeepers and the nation’s bees.

12.11 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) for introducing this timely debate and other hon. Members for their contributions. It gives me the opportunity to explain the Government’s position on bee health and especially our plans for working with beekeepers to secure a healthy and sustainable bee population, as was set out in the draft bee health strategy, which is currently out for public consultation. I want to get our view on some important issues on the record and then address the sheaf of questions that hon. Members raised. Perhaps I can answer those questions if hon. Members resist intervening unless they are compelled to do so—that is for Mr. Cummings to determine.

The development of the Government’s strategy confirms our ongoing commitment to protecting and improving the health of honey bees and to sustaining and supporting beekeeping now and for future generations. The aim of the strategy is a sustainable and healthy population of bees for pollination and honey production in England and Wales via strengthened partnership between Government and other stakeholders. It seeks to address the challenges facing beekeepers. In particular, it sets out outcomes, activities and priorities for protecting and improving the health of honey bees in England and Wales, and the roles and responsibilities of Government and other stakeholders in achieving those objectives. The intention is to provide direction and focus for Government, beekeepers and other stakeholders to work together for the next decade on sustaining honey bees. Strengthened partnership working is crucial in achieving the strategy’s aim and outcomes, and it will ensure that both current and evolving threats to bee health are effectively identified, assessed and acted upon.

Before outlining the key outcomes on which we wish to focus, I should like to say something about the work that the Government have already undertaken to protect bee health. As was mentioned, the National Bee Unit and its inspectors receive annual funding of around £1.3 million from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and a further £300,000 from the Welsh Assembly Government. Additionally, DEFRA allocates about £200,000 to specific bee health research. I put it that way because bee health benefits from a number of additional generic research projects. For example, the Department is funding the development of a biosecurity microchip to detect a range of viruses,
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including bee viruses. The proportion of additional work attributed to bee health is estimated to be worth around £120,000.

The main activities of the National Bee Unit are: providing effective, risk-based inspection and enforcement through a field team of professional bee inspectors to control notifiable pests and diseases, and to implement regulations; undertaking research and development; communicating evidence-based specialist advice to all stakeholders; contributing to policy development, including horizon scanning and risk management of current and emerging threats; providing quality-assured diagnostic services on outbreaks of pests and diseases; contingency planning for the arrival of exotic pests and diseases and other emerging threats—I shall come to hon. Members’ points about that; and supporting the development of good husbandry through training and education programmes that are co-ordinated with national and local associations and that aim to help beekeepers to become more self-reliant in controlling pests and disease and to aspire to higher standards of beekeeping.

That is a pretty impressive list of activities but it does not tell the full story. The National Bee Unit is one of the leading centres of expertise in bee health in Europe and a major contributor to bee science, with an international reputation for excellence. That expertise is made readily available to our beekeepers. However, the Government cannot protect and sustain bee health by ourselves, nor should it be that way. The various challenges and threats can be properly addressed only through effective partnership working, with individual beekeepers at the heart of the relationship. As the draft strategy that was produced following extensive discussions with key stakeholders makes clear, local beekeeping associations have a key role in helping to support, encourage and educate beekeepers to adhere to best practice. That is important.

The debate is about the future of the bee industry. It needs to be recognised that in this country, the industry comprises both professional beekeepers and a much larger contingent of hobby beekeepers, as hon. Members have rightly emphasised. That presents particular challenges. The craft of beekeeping is not a hobby to be taken up lightly; it brings with it responsibilities to ensure that effective pest and disease control and associated good husbandry are adhered to. Thankfully, many good beekeepers and a range of active associations are ready to help, in addition to the wealth of information available from the National Bee Unit. However, not all those who keep bees choose to seek advice or to make themselves known, which is a concern and something that needs to change. I urge all those who keep bees to read the strategy and to get in touch either directly with the NBU or via their local association.

The importance of engaging has been given renewed emphasis by the many reports of colony collapse, which raises the question how seriously our bees are under threat. Many of our beekeepers have experienced significant losses. Those are being investigated by the National Bee Unit as a matter of priority. Additional funding of £90,000 this financial year has been allocated for that work and to carry out the necessary checks on the resulting increase in imported replacement stocks. I am pleased to report that the more recent upturn in the weather is aiding recovery, including the expansion of existing colonies.


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Colony losses are not solely a UK phenomenon. There have been high losses in a number of other European states: Denmark, Spain, Germany and Italy have all reported losses, many at a higher level than those seen in the UK. The French agency for food safety has set up a working group, which includes the UK, to analyse the position. To aid the group, the European Food Safety Authority has been asked to collate information on losses throughout the Community. We will engage closely in any follow-up work. We are also in contact with the authorities in the US and have discussed their investigations into colony collapse, but there is more work to be done.

Dr. Gibson: The Minister is talking about other countries. I mentioned that $80 million is being spent in the United States, but how much do France, Italy and Greece spend on research similar to that for which we are asking in this country?

Jonathan Shaw: We do not have a record of what each EU member state does, but I shall come to the situation of England and Wales in that context in the time remaining.

There is still more work to be done. The emerging picture is that there seems to be no single cause of colony losses and that a multitude of factors could play a part, as hon. Members have said. Our investigations indicate that poor varroa control and lack of attention to good husbandry—particularly when combined with a poor summer last year and a poor early spring this year—have played a significant role in many losses in this country, and we will continue to investigate.

The strategy sets out five key outcomes, with detailed actions to be taken to achieve them, and I have covered most of the points involved. They include effective communications and good standards, but we must also ensure that a sound science and evidence base underpins bee health policy and its implementation. Much has been said about increased funding, and we will put in additional money, as I said.

On the points raised by hon. Members, the British Beekeepers Association launched an initiative last year to host research with DEFRA, and we supported that. The initiative was an important first step in bringing together a broad spectrum of key players to take stock of the range of work under way. DEFRA followed up by creating a research funders’ forum to bring together key parties to improve co-ordination and collaboration on bee health research and to draw on all potential sources of funding. The forum has met twice and is due to meet again this autumn to discuss priorities in the light of responses to the strategy. As the forum’s name suggests, the intention is to identify funding sources. It is important to recognise that tackling the issue is a matter not just for the Government and that others must play their part.

Bill Wiggin: The Minister said that more money was coming from the Government. The BBKA and all the beekeepers who read this debate will welcome that. He said the meeting will be held in the autumn, but could he tell us a little about how much money will come in and when?


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Jonathan Shaw: Let me repeat that we are allocating an additional £90,000 to the National Bee Unit this financial year as a matter of priority.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North talked about colony collapse. We have looked at almost 10,000 colonies this year, and 19.7 per cent. had died, compared with 15.4 per cent. at the same time last year. Varroa is endemic. The National Bee Unit continues to provide advice to beekeepers; indeed, I have with me publications on managing varroa. On behalf of commercial companies, the unit is also looking at the development of veterinary medicines. Varroa is recognised as a key issue in the strategy.

Virtually every hon. Member said that they were not an expert on this issue, but the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) probably is the expert in our ranks—[Interruption.] Well, once someone raises themselves up in the eyes of politicians, they become an expert.

Dr. Gibson: He is the queen bee around here.

Jonathan Shaw: There we are. I am afraid that the jokes this morning have been appalling.

Importantly, the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare talked about collaboration. A number of institutions are undertaking research, although I will not read out all their names, given the time that I have. However, a range of research projects are under way, and various Departments are joining up. It is right that collaboration is key.

The same is true of working with other European states. That has not been done before on this issue, but the UK has pushed for collaboration. The National Bee Unit has the science, the service, the research and the diagnostics under one roof. We do not know of any other unit that offers the same service, certainly in the European Union. On these issues, other countries look to us, not least for contingency arrangements, and they will take our arrangements as a blueprint when dealing with losses due to a variety of diseases. In a similar way, we have contingency arrangements for dealing with different animal disease outbreaks. We are putting research funding in. We are also seeking to have discussions on working with the Wellcome Foundation, as hon. Members have said.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) drew attention to the horticultural industry in his constituency, in Somerset. He talked about tightening the rules on imports, and we certainly want to look at that. Again, the UK has been pushing the issue at a European level. It is coming higher up the political spectrum in the UK, and we have been leading on it in the European Union.

We need to collaborate. Time and again, hon. Members have said that we need to find out what is going on. That requires beekeepers in England and Wales to co-operate with us, to provide us with the information that we need and to take part in the strategy. We are keen that people give us their thoughts on the strategy; otherwise, it will not be complete.

Mark Hunter: Will the Minister give way?

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Jonathan Shaw: I have only five minutes, but I have a whole raft of questions to answer.

The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) set out his concerns, as did many other hon. Members. He said that the picture is complex, and it is. He also referred to the funding from the Welsh Assembly Government.

The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) referred to his constituent. He asked whether we were turning our back on people, and we are certainly not doing that. We are very much engaged in these issues, which is why we published the draft strategy. We want people to be involved in it, and I urge the hon. Gentleman to ask his constituent to take part in the process and to make a contribution.

My noble Friend Lord Rooker said that bees might disappear; he did not predict that they would. Clearly, however, we need to manage our resources and to understand how diseases impact on our bee population.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire made a reasonably good joke at my expense. However, he also spoke about a constituent who was optimistic and talked about better expertise. We all want expertise to flourish, because good husbandry is key to resolving the issue. The hon. Gentleman also referred to the NFU and compared us with other European countries. Part of the strategy relates to the accessibility of medicines and the procedures available under European Community veterinary medicines legislation. We are committed to encouraging marketing authorisations for additional treatments.

The hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) made a good speech recognising that we need to find out far more about what is going on. That requires collaboration and important information. He also welcomed the strategy, and I thank him for that. As I said, we want people to engage with it and to make a contribution.

I am grateful for hon. Members’ contributions. We take the issue seriously. We know that people are passionate about beekeeping. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) said that he was passionate about it and that he loved bees, although he had some appalling jokes. However, this is a serious issue, and hon. Members have articulated concerns on behalf of constituents whom they have met.

Adam Price: Is the Minister aware that an Australian parliamentary committee has today said that 50 million Australian dollars should be invested in protecting the future of the bee industry there. Could we not see a fraction of a similar commitment from the UK Government?

Jonathan Shaw: I have not seen that statement from Australia, but I have indicated that there are additional resources. As the hon. Member for Leominster said, we need to understand what is happening so that we know what we need to fund and what priorities we need to set.

This has been an informative debate, and it is part of the wider discussion that we will have in this place and outside. I am grateful for the information that hon. Members have brought to the debate from their parts of England and Wales.



 

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

 

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