To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, what assessment his Department has made of the geographic distribution of honey bee populations in the UK.
22 November 2021
Defra's indicator of the status of UK pollinating insects shows that overall distribution has declined since 1980, but with little change over the short term. Although not yet definitive, there are encouraging signs; for example the average distribution of wild bees has shown some stability over recent years. While indicators of the abundance of UK butterflies show long term declines since 1976, there has also been no significant change since 2015.
Of the 148 species of bee and 229 species of hoverfly in our pollinating insects indicator, over the long term, 19% of species became more widespread (7% showed a strong increase), and 49% became less widespread (24% showed a strong decrease). By contrast, over the short term, a greater proportion of species were increasing (46%, with 34% exhibiting a strong increase) than decreasing (43%, with 36% exhibiting a strong decrease).
The size of the honey bee population is dependent to a large extent on the numbers of beekeepers. Defra has performed an annual hive count since 2015 and the latest count, at the end of the 2020 season, indicated a total UK population of approximately 260,000 honey bee colonies. As the calculations rely on several assumptions, the hive count figure is termed an experimental statistic. Distribution of hives is determined by where beekeepers arrange to locate their apiaries. The National Bee Unit collates information on apiary location by county, for example, but no formal assessment of geographic distribution has been made.
In 2019, alongside academic partners, we published evidence statements on what is known about the status, values, drivers of change, and responses to management of UK insect pollinators. This concluded that the service of pollination, provided by wild and managed insects, is dependent on insect numbers, and can be improved by diverse pollinator communities, therefore it is possible that pollination services to crops and wild plants have declined in the long term.
The review also highlighted the biggest risk factors to UK pollinator species, such as habitat loss and fragmentation, invasive species, pests and disease, climate change and risks from pesticide use. We continue to act on these issues while keeping other threats under review alongside our partners on the National Pollinator Strategy. For managed honey bees, current major risks are from endemic pests and disease, on which we act alongside our partners on the Healthy Bees Plan 2030.
Our 2019 review showed that historical declines in nectar resources across Great Britain have slowed since the 1970s. While they remain below 1930 levels, total potential nectar resources increased by 25% between 1998 to 2007. Our annual indicator of the extent and condition of priority habitats, many of which are crucial for supporting pollinators, shows that in 2021, almost 1.23 million hectares, or 65.6% of all priority habitats, were in a favourable or unfavourable recovering condition. We are taking a range of actions to improve this position and to restore and create further pollinator habitat.
For example, between 2014 and 2019, Natural England estimates that the area of farmland covered by agri-environment scheme options delivering food and fuel for pollinators increased by 30,000 hectares, largely driven by Countryside Stewardship's Wild Pollinator and Farm Wildlife Package, while pollinators also benefited from managing existing habitat such as protected sites or hedgerows.
We are also working with landowners, farmers and growers alongside conservation bodies, to facilitate pollinator-friendly environments outside agri-environment schemes, for example through Natural England's 'Back from the Brink' species recovery programme and most recently, our Green Recovery Challenge Fund, including Butterfly Conservation's project to restore habitats at 18 woodland sites in the Morecambe Bay area to promote the recovery of threatened butterfly species.
We are building on these measures and projects in the design of our new environmental land management schemes, which will enable many more farmers and land managers to take positive action for pollinators.
In urban spaces, managing public land such as parks or roadside verges for pollinators will be one way that authorities can discharge their biodiversity duty under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act, a duty which the Environment Act 2021 strengthens. We are working across Government on ways to support them, such as by providing guidance. Local planning authorities and other designated public authorities will also be required to produce regular Biodiversity Reports setting out the action they have taken, and these reports will provide a valuable source of good practice.
Research also shows that urban gardens are a significant source of nectar provision and can support substantial pollinator populations. We established and coordinate 'Bees' Needs Week', an annual event working alongside our many partners to raise awareness of the steps that everyone can take to protect pollinators in gardens, allotments, window boxes or other community spaces. We work with our partners to provide year-round guidance and to celebrate examples of best practice in schools, community groups and local authorities through our 'Bees' Needs Champions Awards'.
Pesticides are strictly regulated and only authorised pesticides can be used. Authorisation is only given if, among other requirements, there are expected to be no unacceptable effects on non-target species.
Linking pesticide usage directly to changes in wild bees and other pollinators remains challenging because of the range of pressures which affect pollinators, in addition to the complexities of assessing and attributing pesticide usage and risk to impacts.
We have funded research into the exposure of honeybees to pesticides through analysing pesticide residues in honey samples from across the country and using metabarcoding to understand how honeybees are exposed to these pesticides. We are also currently funding research looking at how we could develop our monitoring to better understand the effects of pesticides on pollinators, as well as routes of exposure.
The draft 'National Action Plan for the Sustainable Use of Pesticides' (NAP) sets out the key ambition to support the development and greater uptake of Integrated Pest Management to reduce pressures on biodiversity and the natural environment. It also set out the intention to improve indicators of pesticide usage, risk and impacts and to ensure those who use pesticides do so safely and sustainably. This includes working in line with the National Pollinator Strategy. The draft NAP was the subject of a public consultation.
The key risk posed by non-native pollinator species is from the non-native pest Asian hornet, whose diet includes honey bees and other pollinating insects. A pest risk assessment and contingency plan were developed as the spread of the species in parts of Europe became clear. Since 2016 there have been small numbers of confirmed UK sightings, and the National Bee Unit has delivered a successful response in each of these cases. There is no evidence to suggest that Asian hornet has become established in the UK.
There are also risks to managed honey bees from other non-native species such as Small hive beetle. Imports of honey bees into the UK are only accepted from approved countries and are subject to rules relating to notification and health certification to ensure that imports are free of key pests and diseases. Post-import checks, including follow-up inspections, are also carried out.
We continue to work within Defra and across Government to maintain and increase the understanding of pollinator species' health and needs through our collaborative work under the National Pollinator Strategy and the Healthy Bees Plan 2030, to integrate action for wild pollinators and managed honey bees across Government policy.