Page last updated at 18:21 GMT, Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Dying bees 'were not a priority'

Honey bees
The government is investigating why bee numbers are declining

A top civil servant has admitted research into bee disease has not been a "top priority" despite mounting concern about declining populations.

But Dame Helen Ghosh, of the environment food and rural affairs department, said more money was now being ploughed into solving the crisis.

The registered bee population in the UK has shrunk by between 10% and 15% but the real number may be much higher.

There are fears a Europe-wide shortage of bees could affect crop pollination.

But Dame Helen, who was giving evidence to the Commons Public Accounts Committee, played down fears food production could be affected, arguing bees were "one of many" crop pollinators.

But she said the government had woken up to beekeepers' concerns and had recently announced a "healthy bees plan" - to cover research, husbandry and disease control - and another 500,000 a year from Defra for the next five years, supplemented by more money from partners.

Bee base

And she said 1.1m would be spent over the next few years to get more people registered on the voluntary "bee base".

Public Accounts Committee chairman Edward Leigh said 200,000 spent on bee health research seemed "very little".

And he said he was surprised there were only 37 part-time inspectors at Defra's bee unit and had only been 32 inspections per 100 registered bee keepers in 2008.

Defra bee expert Stephen Hunter said their hours were being extended and more inspectors employed to seek out more bee keepers who were not registered.

In a sense I am admitting we had not given this the high priority we should have done
Dame Helen Ghosh

Dame Helen, Defra's permanent secretary, was asked whether the department had taken its "eye off the ball" in dealing with bee disease.

She said: "In a sense I am admitting we had not given this the high priority we should have done."

Asked why Defra had not acted earlier, Dame Helen said, when economic times were tight it was not been a financial priority in government.

Amateur beekeepers

But as evidence of a problem has become clearer, ministers had decided to put a "significant extra boost" into research.

She denied being "laid back" in dealing with the problem saying the investment being put in showed the government was being "far from complacent".

The committee was told there were 37,000 registered bee keepers in England and Wales - but as there was no compulsory registration, unlike in France and New Zealand - that was only a rough estimate of how many people actually kept bees.

Dame Helen and Stephen Hunter told MPs that because the "vast majority" of beekeeping was done by amateurs in Britain - unlike the commercial ventures elsewhere - the best approach was to work in partnership rather than be "heavy handed".

The register in New Zealand was difficult to keep up to date and there was a question of what you would do to enforce it, Mr Hunter argued.

Labour MP Don Touhig said 39 commercial crops relied on insect pollination and bees were estimated to be worth about 200m a year to the British economy

Asked if their decline threatened the food chain, Dame Helen said they played an "important role," most significantly in pollinating apples, runner beans and dwarf beans, but added: "They are one of many pollinators."

She added: "I do not believe it is a threat to the food chain."

The MPs also asked why a National Audit Office report had found only three reported cases of bee disease in Scotland - compared with 463 in Wales and 8,071 in England.

Bee health is a devolved issue, handled separately in Scotland, although Mr Hunter said they were in close contact with their Scottish colleagues.

He suggested the nature and levels of bee disease varied between different parts of the UK and said there was no evidence Scottish inspectors were missing vast numbers of bee disease.

But Mr Leigh said he was "amazed" at that explanation: "Disease does not stop at the border between England and Scotland."

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