MPs demand DEFRA pay attention to dying honeybee colonies

July 14, 2009 at 1:00 pm 2 comments

A committee of MPs has accused the government of being indifferent to the health of honeybees, despite the fact they pollinate crops worth £200m a year to the British economy.

The Public Accounts Committee published its report into measures the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is taking to prevent, identify and control notifiable diseases affecting livestock and honeybees.

Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said:

“Honeybees are dying and colonies are being lost at an alarming rate.

“This is very worrying and not just because the pollination of crops by honeybees is worth an estimated £200 million each year to the British economy.

“So it is difficult to understand why Defra has taken so little interest in the problem up to now.

“Additional money for research into honeybee health has been announced but the focus will include all pollinating insects.

“We need to know from the department what proportion of the funding is to be ring-fenced specifically for research into the causes of the decline in honeybee numbers.”

39 commercial crops that grow in Great Britain, with an estimated value of some £200 million a year to the agricultural economy, rely on insect pollination, the committee said.

There are around 250,000 colonies of honeybees in England and Wales.

Beekeepers are reporting an increasing frequency of losses, a trend also reflected in findings from the Department’s inspections of hives.

There are four notifiable bee diseases and pests in England and Wales, and cold, wet weather may also be a factor in colony death.

Reports of a new threat of Colony Collapse Disorder may be the result of a combination of factors, such as changes to habitat or food supply.

In 2007-08, research expenditure in this field was £200,000.

In 2009, the Department announced that this sum is to be supplemented by an extra £2.5 million over five years, but this additional work to support the Department’s new Bee Health Strategy will be diluted by including research into other pollinator insects as well as honeybees.

The report concludes:

1. Success in tackling disease incidence in honeybees and livestock will require the Department to work more collaboratively with farmers, beekeepers and leading academic researchers in these areas.

The Department should pilot local consultative arrangements in livestock disease hotspots involving farmers, veterinarians and local authorities to adopt a collaborative approach to risk assessment, preventative actions and enforcement.

A similar approach between beekeepers and the Department’s inspectors would help to involve the key stakeholders actively in minimising risks and enforcing good bee husbandry in local areas. Before allocating its new honeybee research funding, the Department should discuss priorities with beekeeping associations and leading academic researchers in this area.

2. By widening the focus of the additional research funding to cover other pollinating insects as well as honeybees, work into the underlying causes of the decline in honeybee numbers might not be enough to reverse this trend. The Department should specify which aspects of honeybee health it plans to research and what proportion of the additional funds are likely to be ring-fenced for this purpose.

3. Adopting rigorous bio-security measures might limit disease impact and incidence, but the Department has made little progress in establishing minimum standards of bio-security with the farming industry to allow for effective farm risk assessment.

In consultation with the farming industry and veterinarians from farming practices, the Department and its Agency, Animal Health, should develop bio-security guidelines and standards appropriate to different livestock sectors sufficient to enable Animal Health Officers to assess the risk exposure on each farm.

4. The Department has failed to implement a cost sharing compensation system for farmers which takes account of farmers’ actions to prevent and minimise the risk of disease.

The Department should establish a firm timetable to bring implementation of such a scheme to an urgent conclusion.

5. The Department should enforce rigorously the compulsory testing regimes and the timely testing of contiguous farms, to minimise the risk of disease spread and the impact for neighbouring farms where a farmer resists inspection.

Animal Health should work with local authorities to determine the level of enforcement actions available and to agree the circumstances which trigger enforcement action. The latter should take account of the wider risk of disease spread and the potential inconvenience for neighbouring farms which non-compliance causes.

6. Only half of active beekeepers are registered with the Department and subject to the Department’s inspection regime because, unlike in some other countries, registration is not compulsory.

In maintaining a voluntary approach to registration and inspection, the Department should develop a strategy to increase significantly the number of registered beekeepers. This would enable it to enhance its data on bee disease incidence and better target advice on good husbandry and its research programme.

7. Reports of notifiable disease in honeybees are much lower in Scotland than in England and Wales, but the Department has no strategy for collaborating with the devolved administration in Scotland to manage the risks to honeybee colonies across the United Kingdom.

The Department should work with bee inspectors and bee keepers in Scotland to obtain a greater understanding of the incidence of disease and colony loss, and to establish a common system for registering beekeepers and for measuring and reporting disease.

8. Farmers can be subject to numerous unco-ordinated inspections from central and local government bodies, alongside inspections arising from independent quality assurance schemes and food buyers such as the major supermarkets.

The Department should take the lead in co-ordinating routine inspection visits carried out by the public bodies it sponsors, and facilitate information sharing between them and local authorities to minimise disruption to farmers.


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