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Matt Ridley: My Speech On The Bee Population Scare

Viscount Ridley’s speech in the House of Lords on the Bee Population Scare, 19 June 2018

My Lords, like others, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Bloomfield on securing this debate and join her in paying tribute to the Hymenoptera and other pollinators. I declare my interest as the owner of a farm. Actually, this is a bit of a humble brag of a declaration because I am proud of having created, at my own expense, the largest new wildflower meadow in the north-east of England — about 50 acres. Last week it was a riot of honey bees, bumble bees, solitary bees, hoverflies and butterflies, feasting on vetch, trefoil, daisies, buttercups and other flowers. It was indeed, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said, a blooming field. There you go.

Our farm and others that I know have also started creating flower-rich margins around arable fields as part of high-level stewardship schemes. That is my first point: farmers are doing a lot for pollinators these days, certainly much more than they once did. That is a huge change from 10 years ago, and one on which we can surely build.

Yet we are told that bees especially are in peril and that farmers are, at least in part, the cause of that peril. Is this true? Let us start with honey bees. Globally, there have never been more hives of honey bees; there are about 90 million in the world compared with about 60 million 50 years ago. In Europe and the UK, too, we are near to a record number of hives. There are of course continuing problems with Varroa mites, as the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said, and Nosema and other pests, but there is no evidence of a decline in honey bees. It is true that there was colony collapse disorder 12 years ago, mostly in the United States, but it was a brief episode and is now reckoned to have been something to do with diseases or pests, not farming.

Presumably, that is why the opponents of neonicotinoids stopped talking about honey bees a few years ago and started talking more about wild bees. But where is the evidence that any decline in wild bees is recent or related to pesticides rather than to land management and habitat change? One recent study found that wild bees declined significantly before 1990 because of agricultural intensification but that the decline has since ceased or possibly reversed. I quote from that paper:

“these negative trends became substantially less accentuated during recent decades, being partially reversed for certain taxa (e.g. bees in Great Britain and Netherlands)”.

Even the 2016 Centre for Ecology and Hydrology modelling study by Woodcock et al showed that the most prolific crop pollinators among wild bees, which are the bumble bees, are not declining and some are increasing.

I am sure the Minister is aware of an important study published in Nature in 2015 that was conducted by 58 researchers across five continents. It found that,

“the species that are the dominant crop pollinators are the most widespread and abundant species in agricultural landscapes in general”.

It found that only about 2% of wild bee species are responsible for 80% of the crop pollination performed by wild bees. These are of course the wild bees that would come most into contact with neonicotinoid pesticides, yet the study finds that these 2% of species are actually ones that are thriving. Is the Minister also aware that leaf-cutter bees, which should be especially vulnerable to neonics because they eat leaves and because they are non-social, are thriving in neonic-treated canola fields in North America? Indeed they are used as commercial pollinators in western Canada.

I turn to the neonicotinoid issue. Neonicotinoids can kill bees; of course they can. They are insecticides—the clue is in the name—so lab studies showing that they can kill or harm bees are beside the point. Every farming system, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said, uses pesticides, even organic systems—neem oil, nicotine, spinosad, pyrethrin and copper sulphate are all used on organic farms. So it is a question of which insecticides do the least harm to non-target insects such as bees. Here, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, said, neonicotinoids have one advantage over their main alternative, pyrethroids: they are almost always used as seed dressings, not sprays, so only an insect that eats the plant gets poisoned. When I raised some of these points with an official from Defra, I was told that the persistence of neonics in the soil is a new worry that we have to take into account. However, I have researched the literature and can find no evidence to support that point, so I would be grateful if the Minister could enlighten me on it. Is he also aware that some 18 major field studies and nine review articles published over 10 years have overwhelmingly shown that under realistic conditions neonicotinoids have no effect on honey bees at the hive level, and that the EU’s bee guidance document was effectively constructed so that tier 3 field studies, which show no negative effects at the hive level, have been discounted or dismissed?

On my own farm we stopped using insecticide sprays almost entirely after the introduction of neonicotinoid seed dressings. We also stopped using slug pellets because, again, neonics are good for protection against slugs. We may now have to go back to using both to prevent slug damage and to prevent barley yellow dwarf virus, which is spread by aphids. If so, we will be using pyrethroids, which are probably worse. Even the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety—ANSES—says that of the 130 uses for neonics, 89% will be replaced by other pesticides, often pyrethroids. It said that it,

“has not been possible to identify substances or families of chemical substances that generally have a less unfavourable risk profile than neonicotinoids”.

In other words, the replacements will all be worse than the environment. So please will my noble friend the Minister promise that a proper unbiased study is done to check whether the ban on neonics makes things better or worse for bees? As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said, we just do not know the answer to that.

Of course, the environmental movement would prefer that we used fewer insecticides altogether—and so would I—so why on earth does it still oppose the introduction of genetically modified crops? That is the one proven way in which to farm with fewer insecticides and still produce competitive yields. Twenty-five years of increasing GMO use all around the world has shown that they unambiguously and undeniably reduce insecticide use. Wherever the Bt GMO technology has been applied, in maize, cotton, soybean and canola, it results in less insecticide use. We now know that we made a huge mistake in listening to the greens on this issue; they shot themselves and us in the foot. Had we developed insect-resistant GMO wheat, by now we would be using far fewer insecticides in the British countryside. Why are not the Government saying that out loud? Why is not Buglife saying it out loud? Why is not the organic movement saying this?

Since others have done so, I end with a little bee story. I was sitting on a river bank about a month ago and noticed that there was a very big colony of solitary mining bees digging holes in the bank. I lay down and watched them for a happy hour in the sunshine; then I noticed that there were also some very pretty little wasps hanging around—like ordinary wasps, except smaller and with red legs and red antennae. They were not digging their own holes but just hanging around the mining bee holes. I went back and looked them up and found that it was not a wasp but a bee called the nomad cuckoo bee. It sneaks in when the mining bee is not looking and lays an egg which eats the mining bee baby and then takes over the hole. I do not know what lesson I am drawing from that for your Lordships’ House—none, I hope.

Hansard, 19 June 2018