Huw Delivers Keynote Speech at Bees’ Needs Champions Awards 2018

Huw spoke at the fourth Bees' Needs Champion Awards - an annual event where farmers, community and school groups are celebrated and awarded for their work in raising awareness of the needs of pollinators. Huw gave a keynote speech at the event where he spoke of his experience as a beekeeper and highlighted his role as the Chairman of the All-Parliamentary Group on Bees.

Addressing an audience which included representatives from councils across the country as well as farmers and beekeepers, Huw also spoke of his ambition to create a wildflower meadow in Parliament where solitary bees could be hosted and urged farmers, consumers, beekeepers and environmentalists to work together to forge a mutually beneficial future for bees. 

Read his full speech below: 

Parliament has a number cross-party groups (known as APPGs) covering areas of policy, industry and public affairs and international concern. Some are obvious, the APPG for Autism and the APPG for the BBC, for example.

Some capture the most bizarre and exotic of our nation's rich tapestry.

Taking the letter ‘P’ as an example, I could offer you an All Party Parliamentary Group on Pigeons, Photography and Prostitution (amongst others)!

Prior to 2016, I could not have offered you a group to champion the cause of Pollinators.

My colleagues and I were inspired to come together to set the group up from one of the surprises of my time as a new 2015 entrant. This was the fact that we were receiving more correspondence from constituents on the subject of bees and pollinators than on any other campaigning issue.

It is fair to say that Brexit has now somewhat overtaken that, but it struck a chord. Our constituents were telling us that this was an incredibly important issue for them, and was one which Parliament could do more on.

Taking into consideration that the nation has grappled with the decisions on military action over Syria, our membership of the EU and how to reduce Government spending, this surprising focus on insects is a welcome reminder that constituents are aware that without pollinators we will all starve in the long term. 

Having kept bees, with a varied degrees of success, for the last 7 years, it struck me that pollinators, as well as our concerned constituents, need advocates in Parliament to ensure that we continue to campaign for their presence.

On this basis, with public interest being so strong, it felt right to set up an APPG for Pollinators. With so many colleagues, from across the party divide, being lobbied on the same subject, we were not short of members and I was happy to be elected as the new 17 awards to individuals and groups ranging from Bee farmers, community groups, farmers and schools

Our aim is to promote the role of our pollinators and to ensure that Government policy, and our environmental and farming interests, serve to allow these winged wonders to thrive.

Unfortunately, our pollinators need all the help they can get. We are on a downward spiral when looking at their numbers. Yet, this is a sector of nature which is hugely important to us all:

  • 70 of the 100 crop species that provide 90% of food worldwide are pollinated by bees
  • 1500 species of insects pollinate plants in the UK
  • A high proportion of threatened bee species are endemic either to Europe (20.4% or 400 species) or the EU 27 (14.6% or 277 species – highlighting the responsibility that European countries have to protect global populations of these species

In the last 20 years we have experienced a 54% decline in the honey bee population. Looking beyond honey bees and, indeed, bees, we have also seen since the 1960s a 62% decline in the moth population. We know that pollinators are more prevalent on the non-bee side than the bee side.

This decline has been going on over the last few decades. So what has caused the uptick in public concern? The main campaign focus has been on the use of the agricultural product, neonicotinoids.

On paper, this was a fantastic new product. Seeds coated in toxins mean that farmers do not have to spray pesticides. Neonicotinoids have predominantly been used on oil-seed rape. This crop has become prevalent in our fields over the years, turning the fields yellow (and adding rather bitter nectar to honey in the process).

Neonicotinoids have prevented the flea beetle larvae from destroying these crops. On the face of it, what's not to like for pollinators by coating a seed in a chemical, which is only prevalent at the start of the year when our bees, and many other species of pollinators, are not foraging? This could not only be the future of better crop yield but also protection of our pollinators and avoid the need to spray chemicals seven times over the period when pollinators are active.

However, and despite disputes in the UK as to the evidence, it has now been determined by DEFRA, and the EU, that Neonicotinoids are harmful and use should be prohibited outside of the greenhouse.

It should be said that this was not a decision taken lightly by the UK Government.

Like the scientists at DEFRA, the APPG for Bees and Pollinators had taken quite a nuanced position, similar to the British Beekeepers Association. Until recently, we had argued that the science had been inconclusive although a strand lent itself to the opinion that neonicotinoids have an impact on the productive system and nerve cells of bees as well as the flea beetle larvae that they were brought in to repel.

The issue was that the lab-based studies were not particularly conclusive with regard to absolutely ensuring they reflected what was going on in the field.

Things changed over the summer of 2017. Two scientific studies —one from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology focusing on the UK, Germany and Hungary, and the other a Canadian study—demonstrated that there were issues with respect to survival over winter and reproduction of bees.

Our APPG agreed with the Government; these field studies delivered a conclusion that neonicotinoids do have an impact, and persuaded the UK Government to support further EU controls.

I welcome the controls being brought in by the Government.

However, we should sound a word of warning. It was incredibly interesting that whilst the UK colonies were largely being wiped out, in Germany there was no impact at all. Could this be because, in Germany, the habitat is much richer than in the UK. This is the area where I suggest we focus our next set of impactful tasks and not consider it job done, as my constituents appear to believe, with Neonicotinoids now being prohibited.

Modern farming, the varroa mite, the wax moth, global warming, food fashions, habitat loss—particularly with regard to hedgerows—and the rush of beekeepers, for which I accord blame to myself, mean that we have a much wider expanse of policy areas we need to look at.

I gave statistics from the decades past, but this at a time before neonicotinoids were introduced. The population of bees and pollinators has been declining because of not just neonicotinoids but the other issues I mentioned earlier. I would like to see the Government focus more on those areas.

Those of us who are mystified and bewitched by bees would point to the hive as being an example of a cut-throat operation which consistently evolves and uses every single tool in its armoury to survive and thrive. No wonder Parliamentarians find them so fascinating! We have much to learn!

If our bees and pollinators are adding £600 million per year to the value of UK crops through increased yield, we owe it to them to explore new science and preserve and enhance our environment.

More than that, we should, like our colonies, work together as one to find a future which will benefit both farmers, environmentalists, consumers and beekeepers alike. 

Finally, a point closer to my home. Politicians can talk a good game, but I have walked around the Parliamentary estate with ecologists from Kew and other environmental experts, and a cursory glance shows that Parliament is an appalling place for bees and pollinators to thrive and survive in.

One of our aims of our group is to turn parts of the Parliamentary Estate into wildflower meadow and host first some solitary bees and, once the authorities are comfortable, a hive of bees on site. This would turn some of the bare concrete barren land of Parliament into a more natural habitat where bees could forage. We would then not only talk a good game about the importance of bees and pollinators but demonstrate to our constituents when they visit that this is also a place where pollinators can thrive.​

Thank you for having me today, congratulations to all of the award-winners and please feel that the APPG for Bees and Pollinators is a group you can be a part of as well.