Honeybee imports from the EU – another casualty of Brexit?

I recently read an article in the Guardian entitled Brexit rules mean 15m baby bees may be seized and burned, says beekeeper. It continued, “A beekeeper trying to bring 15 million bees into the UK says he has been told they may be seized and burned because of post-Brexit laws.”

I felt alarm and bewilderment in equal measure. I do not want to see bees come to a gruesome fate because of red tape. In addition, baby bee is not a standard beekeeping term – and how many colonies does 15m bees work out to anyway? Is it another outrage of Brexit? I will try to unpick.

First of all, we are talking about full time commercial honey-bee husbandry here, not beekeeping as a hobby with one or two apiaries.

The article continues, “Patrick Murfet wants to import the baby Italian bees for his Kent business and to help farmers pollinate valuable crops. But new laws that came into effect after the UK left the single market mean bringing bees into the country is banned”.

Well, I know Patrick the beekeeper, he is a fellow member of the Bee Farmer Association. He runs a beekeeping and beekeeper supply business at Bridge near Canterbury. I know that Patrick purchases package bees from Europe, so I think this what the article is talking about, but in somewhat emotive terms.

Yes, package bees are a thing – billions of bees have been air-freighted round the world in the past. They are mostly intended for commercial beekeeping to supplement existing colonies of bees or to make new ones. They consist of one caged queen and 2-3lbs of bees and a can of syrup to provide for them on the journey, all held in a well-ventilated box that prevents that prevents them from overheating. A 3lb package contains roughly 10,000 bees; it is a big industry in the USA (hence the imperial measurement, although metric measurements are catching on slowly!).

It was possible to get package bees from Australia until a pest, the small hive beetle, was found in hives there. Over the last few years, the only place outside the EU to obtain packages has been New Zealand.

Since these things are transported around the world there is obviously a risk of importing exotic pests and disease along with the bees, so packages can only come from countries that have a clean bill of bee health. When we were an EU country, we could import from the warmer southern EU countries to the UK because of the internal market rules.

However, as we are now a third country, we can no longer do that. The UK could potentially change the rules to allow EU imports, but the EU would not receive a clean bill of health under UK rules, because the same pest that was found in Australia has also now been found in the EU. In addition, there is lots of new paperwork to be completed and a health inspection to be factored into the cost.

Patrick needs these bee imports to perform vital pollination services to top fruit growers, apples and pears. This industry has grown and grown over the last 25 years, which has made us much less dependent on imports. However, this year ,the fruit growing industry is going to be starved of the migrant labour that made the growth possible and will also be affected by this reduction in pollination services. All that in addition to the difficulties of COVID-19.

Is this another of the unintended consequences of Brexit?