I recently attended and spoke at an event in Parliament organised by Friends of the Earth after I pledged a couple of months ago to support their campaign on falling bee populations, and I was reminded again of this incredibly important issue. Bee numbers are falling dramatically. Managed honey bee colonies have halved since 1985, whilst wild honey bees are nearly extinct in many parts of the country. Bumblebees have also declined nearly 60% since 1970. Bees are vital to our agricultural economy, and to replace bee services with hand pollination would cost the government close to £2 billion a year, a huge amount of spending that needs to be avoided.
As someone who grew up on a fruit farm, I was always very conscious of the importance of bees to life. We used to keep colonies of honey bees to pollinate the apple orchards but there were also many different types of bumble bees that lived on the farm. I also used to look after commercially cultivated hives of bumble bees on a large heated glass house nursery that I used to run and it was brilliant to watch them work. I learnt that there needs to be a diversity of bee breeds to ensure the best quality crops as well as a consistent yield. Most fruit and vegetables are pollinated by bees, as well as wildflowers enjoyed by many such as bluebells and poppies.
There has been a great deal of publicity surrounding the European Commission’s recent decision to ban Neonicotinoids for the next two years following some scientific recommendation and in response to various campaigns against them. Whilst I appreciate the argument for caution with pesticide use, I also think there are plenty of other reasons for bee decline that need to be addressed and we shouldn’t get too bogged down in one particular area. One problem is the lack of bee keepers, who as a group have declined 80% in the last 60 years. More needs to be done to attract new blood to an enjoyable and important task.
More also needs to be done in creating a better farmland environment for bees, having lost much of their natural environment to intensive agriculture. The Government have made some impressive steps in the Stewardship schemes available to farmers, and new options are available which subsidise land beneficial to pollinators. The Government is also working with beekeepers to provide them with training and the ability to respond to disease threats. They have also taken the lead in researching bumble bee decline and these studies will be extremely useful as most previous research has been solely focused on honey bees. I think these are steps in the right direction, but I also look forward to further schemes to help these great creatures.
George Eustice can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.