HC Deb 22 March 1956 vol 550 cc1630-40

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Oakshott.]

11.32 p.m.

Mr. Peter Smithers (Winchester)

The subject I wish to discuss this evening is that of honey and the stocks of bees at present in England and Wales. This is not a commodity of great interest, I imagine, to the National Farmers' Union; it is not a Price Review commodity; it is not a commodity, on the whole, produced by very large-scale operators, and I am not particularly concerned tonight with the large number of amateurs like myself who keep bees simply because we enjoy doing it.

I am concerned with the great majority, as I believe they are, of bee keepers who keep a few bees in order to bring in a little extra money. They are people like farm workers, village postmen or schoolmistresses—people in the countryside. I believe it is a fact that of the 70,000 or so bee keepers in the country, not more than 4,000 have more than ten stocks. That makes quite clear the character of the people with whom I am dealing. They are the small part-time producers.

When these people run into difficulties with bee-keeping, especially financial difficulties, they do not protest and hold demonstrations. It is not their livelihood; there is no reason why they should. They merely give up bee-keeping. It is the decline in the number of stocks of bees kept that I want to bring to the atten- tion of my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Since the end of the war, the figures prepared in my county show that the number of stocks has declined by about 50 per cent., and even since 1952, according to the Minister's own figures, there has been a considerable further decline.

Why this decline has taken place is arguable. I know about the weather; of course that has reduced the number of stocks of bees. I know that after the war, because of the jam shortage many people kept bees in order to help out their family supplies, and, I am afraid, sometimes in order to use the sugar which the bees should have had. I know that the Ministry has been doing a great deal to eliminate disease, which has taken its toll. I know that, in spite of these facts, the 1955 crop was bigger than the 1952 crop—something which is not surprising to anybody who realises that the product of a stock can vary from nothing to 120 lb.

What I want to draw to the Minister's attention is, first of all, that the costs of bee-keeping have risen considerably. I have in my hand some figures supplied by one of the leading makers of beehives, which show, for example, that the cost of wood for hives, which was £45 per standard in 1946, is £175 per standard in 1956. Other costs have risen correspondingly.

Secondly, the contribution which can be obtained from bee-keeping towards the family exchequer is relatively much smaller in the post-war period, when wages are higher and the standard of living has risen. We have all these factors—increased costs and less relative productivity from honey—which mean that people are not quite so keen to keep bees simply as a financial proposition.

What I think has been disastrous is the fluctuation in honey prices. When there is a bad honey year, honey prices in the country are good. There were three such bad years running until last year, and at times, in some of them, honey could be sold at 6s. 6d. per 1b.; but then the producers had no honey, or very little honey, to sell. Then came last year, the good year, when the producers had some honey; and prices promptly fell to 2s. 6d. in many of the country villages.

This extreme variation in prices means that unless the small bee-keeper has the patience of Job he can look for a very long time ahead without seeing much chance of getting his money, or even his expenses, back again. I want to ask the Minister whether there is not some way in which we can iron out some of the differences which occur from season to season in honey prices and thus encourage an increase in the number of stocks of bees. If we had a bee population back to that which we had immediately after the war—perhaps rather a lot to hope for—we should have about £1½ million worth of extra produce in honey and wax.

In addition, we should not have to import so much honey. As my hon. Friend knows. imported honey brings with it foul brood. One has only to throw an empty imported honey tin out for it to attract neighbouring bees to come and clean it and to become infected with foreign foul brood. A reduction of imports would therefore be a good thing from that point of view.

I believe that we could encourage the keeping of more stocks of bees if we could help the producer with price stability and if we could help him to produce better quality. In Hampshire, with this in mind, we have been considering a draft scheme which is being circulated at the moment to see what the reactions are to it. Perhaps I may read part of it to the House, and perhaps my hon. Friend will comment on it. … there would be a small committee of bee-keepers, under the chairmanship of someone nominated by the Ministry, to administer the co-operative … Premises with storage and bottling facilities would be needed. Bee-keepers in the county would be encouraged to maintain their private local sales. In glut seasons they would be invited to put their honey, surplus to the local demand, in 28 lb. tins. This would be bought at an appropriate price and held by the co-operative. In bad seasons, the honey would be released either to the original producer or other producers, bottled or in tins, at an agreed figure, or sold by the co-operative to retailers. Those participating in the scheme would be expected to conform to prices recommended by the committee in their private sales. Of course, if they sold above the committee's price in scarcity years that would not matter.

The draft scheme continues: As a rough estimate, the capital required to set up such a co-operative in a county would be between £5,000 and £10,000. Most of this would be needed to purchase the surplus in good seasons, and would be recovered when that honey was disposed of in times of scarcity. The co-operative would be non-profit-making, but it should be so run that the costs of administration were recovered over a period. I do not pretend that that is a complete scheme, or that it would prove workable in the precise form suggested. It has merely been put forward in our county in order to test the reactions of bee-keepers, to see if they think it is workable. If it were found to be workable it would be a very valuable step towards producing honey of a better quality, which would therefore be more marketable. Honey produced under primitive conditions, as much village honey is, could be processed and graded in a proper way, and it would then be more valuable when marketed. I hope that it may be possible to start a pilot experiment of this description in some county, and if it should be in my county of Hampshire I should be the more pleased.

What am I asking of the Minister? I readily concede that the responsibility for an initiative is not his in the first place, but his Ministry can be very helpful in these matters, and I hope that he will be able to say tonight that he would like to see some enterprise of this kind considered and if, upon careful examination, it should prove worthy of undertaking, that he would be willing to give such support to it as his Ministry is able to afford.

I suggest that he has a direct responsibility for food production. Here is one of our national crops going partly unharvested. All that is required is a little organisation and a little cooperative effort and long-term thinking in order to increase very considerably the product of this crop. Should we be able to achieve this aim, I am sure that the Minister and all those concerned in the honey-producing industry will have made a very valuable contribution to the economy of the countryside as well as to that of the nation.

11.42 p.m.

Mr. Brian Harrison (Maldon)

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Smithers) for raising this subject, because it is an important one. I keep bees as a hobby and as a weekend relaxation, but I want to talk about them tonight from the point of view of commercial seed growers and fruit producers. I recommend bee-keeping to anybody who leads a fairly busy life, because when one is manipulating a hive it provides a completely adequate reason for refusing to answer the telephone—and there is a noticeable reluctance on the part of anybody but the most thickskinned visitor to talk to one when one has a hive opened.

In Essex, where my constituents and I live, the number of stocks appears to be going down very considerably, and has deteriorated most severely over the last five years. According to the figures of the Essex Bee-Keepers' Association, which is my only source of information, despite its increased activities its membership has gone down by about half.

This brings me to my first request. Can my hon. Friend's Department produce, from time to time, a census of the numbers of stocks of bees, and make the result available so that people can assess the importance of the decline?

It is no good knowing these figures or having the requisite number of hives unless they are healthy.

A number of public-spirited persons with considerable skill and knowledge act as inspectors for the Ministry, but does the Minister think they are sufficiently well paid for so important a job?

In the commercial seed-growing and fruit-producing areas it is absolutely essential to have sufficient bees. Otherwise we should have the conditions that existed in a development area in Africa where D.D.T. spraying to kill off unpleasant insects also killed the bees, with the result that crops failed because they were not fertilised. Would the Minister please consider these points. If stocks of bees fall too low we may well have a deterioration in yields of crops, and we might then get a negative answer to the famous question about the church clock and "Is there honey still for tea?"

11.47 p.m.

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson (Farnham)

Bee-keeping is a very much neglected branch of national agriculture. I am a very keen bee-keeper myself, so perhaps I am prejudiced. Not only can great pleasure be got out of it, but a considerable commercial crop can be raised, and it is of great benefit to agriculture from the fertilising activity of bees.

This country should carry a much heavier bee population, and it is very largely in the hands of the Ministry whether that increase ever comes about. I do not think that the literature put out by the Department is good enough. Pamphlets put out, either by the Department or others, are always afraid to recommend a particular type of hive or a particular way of dealing with swarms. They leave everything benevolently vague.

I wish the Minister would appoint a committee to report on the most practical form of hive. I personally favour the "national" hive and think there is none better. I think that my way of dealing with swarms is up to date and successful. A standard hive should be officially recommended by the Ministry, and some method of dealing with swarms—I do not mean swarm control—should be universally recommended as simple and effective. Standard procedure should be laid down. The recommendations of the Ministry should, in short, be brought up to date.

The research station at Rothamsted does not seem to be doing very valuable work. It is too esoteric and scientific; it should have a commercial bias. I am not running down what is done there, but most people who buy the pamphlets are not made to feel that they would like to take up bee-keeping. If they do, they do not know where to start. I hope that the Minister will pay attention to these comments and try to do something real for bee-keeping. My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. B. Harrison) said that stocks were falling in Essex; I think they are falling all over the country owing to the multiplicity of counsellors and of methods recommended.

As for the commercial return, no one will make there fortune out of keeping half a dozen hives, but one sometimes gets a bumper year. Last year I got 480 pounds of honey, averaging 80 pounds a hive, and the year before, a bad year, I had 20 pounds a hive average. So with a little care and good luck, which I have largely had, a certain modest return can be got from beekeeping, and the greatest pleasure, amusement and recreation, physical and mental, in the true sense of the word. I suppose, like everyone with a hobby, one tends to ride it to death, but I recommend it as one of the most delightful hobbies that anyone can have, and I hope the Ministry will give a helping hand.

11.51 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of 'Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. G. R. H. Nugent)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Smithers) on his success in the ballot tonight, and in raising this very interesting subject.

Bees are not only fascinating and interesting, but they are extremely valuable both for the honey they produce and the function they perform of fertilizing trees and plants; and we have an interest, in the Ministry, from that point of view. I should say something too on the question of domestic food production policy.

We have a National Council for Domestic Food Production, and there we have a representative of the British Beekeepers' Association. We keep a general oversight of all domestic food production and make grants to bodies who need help, but generally our policy is to help these bodies to be independent and to conduct their own affairs and not to make them dependent on Government grants. I am sure this is the right approach, because, after all, whether in bee-keeping or in any other form of domestic food production these are individual efforts. They are part of people's private, personal lives, and people do not want the Government coming into this sphere.

Turning to the point raised by the hon. Members for Farnham (Mr. Nicholson) and Maldon (Mr. B. Harrison)—the question of literature—I will certainly look at the question and see if we can improve the position. My knowledge of beekeeping is not great, though I do keep two or three hives myself, but such knowledge as I have is sufficient to tell me that all bee-keepers do not think alike. If we were to be too precise in the advice we gave, I do not think we should please everyone, even though we should please the hon. Member for Farnham. But I will look at these pamphlets and see if we can introduce any more precision into them. On the question of beginners, my hon. Friend will find in almost every county there is an officer of the county council, under the education authority, who is their beekeeping adviser, who is well able and of the right temperament to give the beginner the right advice and set him on the path to keeping bees.

Mr. Smithers

They are extraordinarily good.

Mr. Nugent

I am grateful for that aside. They certainly do their utmost to meet the varied needs they are called on to meet. It is certainly our wish to give all the help in any way we can to anyone starting.

Let me turn now to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon. On his first point, we did conduct a census last year on a voluntary basis. It was done by the county committees, in connection with our foul brood control arrangements, and it is that census on which I am relying tonight for the figures I will give in a minute. I think we shall conduct another census this year, and as far as I know we shall be able to conduct one on this basis each year, so keeping an oversight on the bee population.

As to his second point, I agree that the honorarium paid to those public-spirited bee-keepers who play such an important part in foul-brood control, is very modest, and we certainly wish to recognise their very valuable help. We will therefore look at it again to see if we can make a small upward revision to bring the amount more into line with present day costs.

Thirdly, I should like to give the general figures of bee keeping to the House. It is true that the Essex figures seem to have gone down rather exceptionally, but the national figures are fairly re-assuring, more particularly when looked at against the 1925 figures, which appear in our earliest reliable record, the 1932 Report on the Marketing of Honey and Beeswax. In 1925 some 20,000 bee keepers were recorded, with some 70,000 colonies. In 1944–45 there were some 83,000 bee keepers and about 407,000 hives.

The figures remained of that order, with variations of about 10 per cent. up or down, remained for the next nine years until 1952–53, when sugar rationing came to an end. The primary significance of that event was that we no longer had the records which we had been able to keep when the owners of the bees registered their hives. The last figure we have is that for 1952–53 when there were some 80,000 bee-keepers and about 396,000 hives. The next available figure is that for last year, 1955, when there were nearly 72,000 keepers and roughly 305,000 hives, but we rather think that that figure is by no means complete, and the actual number might well be some 10 or 20 per cent. higher.

Mr. Nicholson

Can my hon. Friend say at what time of year the number of hives is returned?

Mr. Nugent

The work will be going on during the summer months in connection with foul-brood control. I could not now tell my hon. Friend the precise months, but if he wants the information I will send it to him.

We are fairly sure that these figures are on the low side, but in any event the census will probably be taken again this year and it may be possible to take one in most years. Last year followed three bad seasons, and the end of sugar rationing is not without significance in the picture. The figures during the rationing period may have been a little on the optimistic side. Taking those factors into account, the indication is that the bee population figures, especially when looked at against those of 1925, are really not showing an alarming trend. They are still high, and I do not think that we need feel that there is any danger arising from insufficient pollinators.

The importance of the bee population as pollinators is always in our mind, and with the use of modern insecticides must always be in mind. It is noteworthy that the people whose work is most dangerous to the bees through the use of insecticides—the fruit growers—are turning more and more to the use of selective insecticides which do their work but do not damage the bees. It is interesting in that connection to note that in Kent the fruit growers now pay £2 10s. a hive to have the bees moved in during the blossom period to assist pollination. That is done, too, in Lincolnshire, where they pay £2 a hive. That all indicates that the fruit growers and the farmers realise that bees are their friends and that particular care should be used in the use of sprays. The danger of losing our pollinators, therefore, is not a big one.

Perhaps I may be allowed to say a brief word about honey production, and to congratulate my hon. Friend on the encouragement he is evidently giving in Hampshire by means of this co-operative scheme. Certainly, we should like to give it all the encouragement we can. But the initiative, as he rightly says, does depend on the local bee keepers, and if they combine to help themselves in this way, they will find it to their advantage. After all, they will only be doing what the big commercial bee keepers do, namely, to carry over their stock from a good year like 1955 to another year. Honey will keep almost indefinitely if it is looked after, and we should be glad to help this scheme in any way we can. I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend on the lead he has given, and to say that we hope that the scheme may come to fruition.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Twelve o'clock.