Today, on United Nations “World Bee Day”, Sam March considers the extent to which the law protects these crucial pollinators in England and Wales.
Our ecosystems, food security and survival all depend on bees. According to the United Nations, nearly 90% of the world’s wild flowering plant species depend entirely, or at least in part, on animal pollination, as do more than 75% of the world’s food crops and 35% of global agricultural land.
According to Friends of the Earth the UK has lost 13 species of bee since 1900, and a further 35 are considered under threat of extinction. Considering their vital importance and falling numbers, it is sometimes supposed, as in this BBC article, that bees are protected by law. However, the truth behind this supposition is limited.
Do our animal welfare laws protect bees?
There are an estimated 274,000 honey bee hives in the UK; the majority of these hives are kept by approximately 44,000 amateur keepers. At the height of summer there is an average of 35-40,000 bees in the hive, meaning there can be billions of bees under human control at a given time.
The legislation that is usually considered to protect animals under the control of man is the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Amongst other things, the act makes it illegal to cause “unnecessary suffering” to “protected animals.” However, the act defines an “animal” as “a vertebrate other than man”. This means due to their lack of backbone and central nervous system, bees are afforded no protection under the act. Nor is their situation any better under the EU law, as Council Directive 98/58/EC explicitly excludes “any invertebrate animal.”
This is not an abnormal position, according to a recent study by Lukas Jasiunas, the welfare laws of most countries do not take insects into consideration. This is partly due to differing perspectives on whether insects have intrinsic moral value, and the extent to which they are conscious or sentient. There are those who suggest bees do suffer and others who appear to suggest they do not. These are matters still to be resolved by scientists and philosophers.
How about our wildlife protection laws?
Many wildlife animals, including a number of insect species, are afforded a degree of protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. However, only those animals mentioned in certain schedules are protected, and none currently contain any bee species.
As for species-specific legislation, the Bees Act 1980 empowers Ministers to draw up Orders “for the purpose of preventing the introduction into or spreading within Great Britain of pests or diseases affecting bees.” Under this act, the relevant ministers have issued The Bee Diseases and Pests Control Orders 2006 for England and Wales (as amended). Whilst these seek to protect bee populations generally from the introduction of new pests or diseases, they do not protect particular species or individual bees from destruction or maltreatment.
So can I kill bees?
In short, there are no laws that directly prevent people from maltreating or killing bees in England and Wales. Nevertheless, even pest controllers will do the utmost to avoid exterminating them “unless there's a serious threat to human life”. The British Pest Control Association recommends always exploring all other avenues before considering eradication. If at all possible the BPCA recommends leaving bee nests alone to thrive. Alternatively, they recommend using a swarm collector from the British Bee Keepers Association or getting in touch with the Tree Bee Society, who will normally collect the swarm free of charge.
What other laws affect bees and those who work with them?
The fact that bees can be legally killed does not mean that those working with them operate in a legislative vacuum. Pest control measures are subject to legislation pertaining to food and environmental protection, health and safety, and the use of hazardous substances, pesticides and biocidal products. So, whilst a person cannot be prosecuted for killing bees per se, prosecutions can be brought against those who, for instance, do so using the wrong chemicals.
Furthermore, beekeepers and those in the honey business are subject to a wide variety of legislation and regulations pertaining to honey specifically and more generally to food labelling, food safety, food and environmental protection, and veterinary medicine.
This blog post is not legal advice. If you’re an animal advocate, organisation or charity and need advice on any of the legislation mentioned or how the law pertains to a particular species, it is vital to seek expert advice. For more information on Advocates for Animals and our areas of expertise, please visit here or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.