I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I welcome the Minister of State, Senator Hackett to the House. It is always a pleasure. It is a different type of welcome for the Minister of State because she is very familiar with the Seanad but it always a pleasure seeing her in the House. It is good that Seanad Éireann has a Member who sits at the Cabinet table.
Ireland is the envy of much of northern Europe where this bee used to be prevalent. Due to hybridisation, the pure Apis mellifera mellifera is now only found in a few pockets. Ireland is fortunate to have a pure population of its own native honeybee that is perfectly adapted to this island, this climate and this flora. For years it was thought the native Irish honeybee was extinct but scientific research has well and truly proven otherwise. However, it is threatened with extinction by hybridisation due to continued increasing and unnecessary imports of non-native honeybees. Imported honeybees mate with natives and destroy the delicate balance honed by thousands of years of evolution. The unique genetic traits of the native honeybee get lost.
Once genetic diversity is lost, it is lost forever. This topic is slightly complicated so I ask Members to bear with me.
Under law, honeybees are generally treated in the same manner as fully domesticated livestock, with free movement of honeybees committed throughout the EU in much the same way as cattle or pigs. However, while cattle and pigs are controlled in their mating habits through artificial insemination and fencing, bees mate in the open so it is not possible to control their mating. As many Members will know, a hive comprises drones, which are the males, workers and a queen. Drones from miles around will congregate in an area. The jury is still out on why they select a specific area but it is normally 10 or 15 m above ground level. That is called a drone congregation area, where they await virgin queens. That is in stark contrast to cattle and pigs and therefore deserves much more consideration. It is a complex matter, considering the drone has a mother but no father, two grandmothers and one grandfather. It is very different and very precious and merits special attention.
The distinctive characteristics of the native Irish honeybee are the result of natural selection over thousands of years, which has produced a honeybee well-adapted to the current environmental conditions found in Ireland. Furthermore, its genetic diversity means the population is best equipped to face future challenges the climate and environment may present. In a nutshell, it is more frugal with its stores, less aggressive, less prone to swarming and is adaptable to the climate and the flora. We do not want it to go the same way as the curlew. The indigenous curlew, I fear, is almost beyond return. I live in hope and BirdWatch Ireland is doing great work but we have lost our curlew. We do not want to lose our native Irish honeybee. Professor Tom Seeley, the internationally renowned honeybee expert, referred to this in his foreword to the book published by the Native Irish Honey Bee Society. I welcome distinguished members of the executive of that organisation who have joined us today, including some of my former teachers, Colm O'Neill and Seán Byrne. They are candid people so no doubt they will tell me later if I got something wrong but I hope I am accurate in what I have said so far. Well done to the Native Irish Honey Bee Society for fighting this campaign year after year for well over a decade. The words of Professor Seeley, in the prelude to that excellent book, are very profound. He says:
Ireland remains home to a widespread and remarkably pure population of Apis mellifera mellifera. This is the subspecies of Apis mellifera that originally lived throughout northern Europe, from the British [and Irish] Isles to the Ural Mountains. Over the last 100 years, however, this subspecies has been largely replaced over most of its range as beekeepers in northern Europe have imported countless queens of two subspecies native to southern Europe, A. m. ligustica and A. m. carnica.
We have to say "Stop" when there is still time and take appropriate legislative action. There are other bonuses to doing this. Professor Seeley goes on to say:
Ceasing imports will support a drive to boost the abundance of wild colonies of the native Irish honey bee. Having a sizable population of wild colonies fully exposed to the agents of natural selection - including climate change and novel parasites - will favour the long-term survival of Apis mellifera mellifera in Ireland.
According to Dr. Helen Mooney:
The genetic integrity of the black bee population in Ireland is the envy of black bee breeders across Europe. Ideally, our entire country should become a special area of conservation.
We are the last stronghold in Europe.
Genetic studies carried out in NUI Galway and Limerick Institute of Technology, funded by the Government and the Native Irish Honey Bee Society, established beyond doubt that our native Irish honeybee has survived on this island and that the population is genetically diverse. These findings were published in international, peer-reviewed scientific journals. It is essential to stop imports of non-native bees to protect this valuable genetic resource. Cross-breeding with subspecies of strains that were not selected by local conditions produces maladapted bees because the delicate and complex genetic systems that took millennia to evolve will be disrupted. The extent of the risk is emphasised by the fact that in some parts of the island over 70% of swarms or wild colonies show clear evidence of being hybridised to some extent.
Last Friday, I had the honour of chairing a seminar at the Bar Council of Ireland, run by the Climate Bar Association. One of the guest speakers at that seminar, Kyle Petrie of OpenHive Honey, said that 75% of the swarms he caught are non-native. Once imports of non-native honeybees are banned, the degree of introgression will be reduced as non-natives are naturally and gradually replaced by native Irish honeybees. Given the valuable genetic resource that is the native Irish honeybee and its suitability for apiculture, it is under further threat from parasites and pathogens that may be imported with honeybees of any strain, all originating from outside the island of Ireland. The most destructive pests and pathogens afflicting the native Irish honeybee originated from imported bees. The two most serious at the moment, the mite varroa destructor, together with its associated viruses, and nosema, are here because of imported honeybees. Keeping the island clear of the wholesale introduction of pests and parasites reduces the need for chemical treatments to counteract these diseases.
It was reported last year that Ireland recorded a 327% increase in the importation of non-native queens. This Bill will stop that happening. It is not too late. The demonstration outside Leinster House was very effective and done in a very dignified way. It is not a protest. The beekeepers are standing in solidarity asking and pleading for action. They are encouraging the Government to take action.
It is clear that the proposed ban on the importation of honeybees raises a number of important legal issues, including EU law considerations. Any ban on the importation of honeybees must be a restriction on trade and therefore would not be done lightly. We are aware of that. It would have to be justified and proportionate in light of the risk posed. For fear I would fail the objective bias test as a beekeeper, I approached the Climate Bar Association to give me its independent expert report, conclusions and feedback. I fully concurred with what it concluded, namely, that it is not repugnant to EU law. That assessment was done under its chairperson Clíona Kimber SC, who is here today. So are Donnchadh Woulfe, Sara-Jane O'Brien and Mema Byrne, barristers-at-law. They have made wonderful contributions to this area and the Bill. We would not be here today without the Climate Bar Association.
Article 36 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union allows member states to take measures having an effect equivalent to quantitative restrictions or barriers to trade when these are justified by general non-economic considerations. That expressly includes public policy or security and the protection of health or life of humans, animals or plants. Measures adopted under this article are exceptions to the general principle of the EU and ought to be invoked. Generally there are no barriers to trade between member states but there can be in this specific exception. I accept this exemption should be interpreted strictly. It cannot constitute arbitrary discrimination or be a disguised restriction on trade between member states. It must have a direct effect on the public interest to be protected, not going beyond the necessary level in order to respect the principle of proportionality which is at play here. The precautionary principle is set out in Article 191 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and allows for a higher level of environmental protection thorough preventative decision-making in the case of risk.
The habitats directive ensures the conservation of a wide range of rare, threatened or endemic animal and plant species and does not at present cover bees native to a particular region of Europe. However, bees other than apis mellifera mellifera are imported into Ireland and they may threaten or adversely impact our biodiversity and related ecosystems. A member state can add to a list of invasive species by suggesting the name to the Commission, together with a risk assessment, and filling in the form, which is set out in the regulation. As there are a number of honeybees that threaten the Irish ecosystem, rather than classifying specific bees as invasive alien species, it is submitted that it is preferable to introduce legislation banning the importation of any bee not classified as apis mellifera mellifera. This approach is in accordance with the precautionary principle and has the added advantage of ensuring that any ban on the importation of honeybees does not go further than necessary to achieve the stated aim.
For too long, we have been saying it cannot be done. The beekeepers know it ought to be done and the expert independent lawyers have told us how to do it. There is a way forward. I will now hand over to my Green Party colleague, Senator Garvey.