Article by Tim Lovett, BBKA Past President, published in the June edition of BBKA News.

Professor Ian Gibson PhD,
The MP who served beekeeping so well

By Tim Lovett, BBKA Past President

Ian Gibson passed away on Friday 9 April 2021 after a short illness. He was elected an Honorary Fellow of the BBKA in 2010 in recognition of his seminal active support and encouragement to the BBKA in a period of great importance for bees and beekeeping. Indeed, he played no small role in putting beekeeping front and centre at Westminster and the country at large, and as a result, was hugely helpful in engaging with the public in getting key messages over to them. The corporate memory of the BBKA may have a number of lacunae, so it is worth revisiting Ian’s involvement and contribution.

Ian Gibson graduated and obtained his PhD at Edinburgh University. A geneticist, he did post-doctoral research at Universities of Indiana and Washington before returning to the UK as a lecturer at the newly established UEA, Norwich. There, he was very popular with colleagues and students; he always spoke his mind but rose to become Dean of the School of Biological Sciences in 1991 before being elected to Parliament in the 1997 Labour landslide. As an MP he was a member of the Science and Technology Select Committee and its chairman between 2001 and 2005. He was Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Cancer and was given a ‘Champion’ award by Macmillan Cancer Relief for his work in support of cancer sufferers. He was an excellent footballer in his youth, captained Wymondham Town FC while at UEA and later trained the House of Commons team.

Following the ruinously expensive Foot and Mouth debacle of 2001, Defra was put under the cosh by the Treasury to cut its budget by 20% across the board. Beekeepers who had suffered heavy colony losses through access restrictions to apiaries, were now to suffer further damage through substantial cost-saving measures to the NBU’s inspection service, possibly losing up to twenty Seasonal Bee Inspectors. Following contact with Ian, who had been my advisor at UEA, Norwich, a meeting at Westminster laid the foundations for an approach to Lord Bach, the then ‘Bees’ Minister’. A campaign, quickly launched, gathered 36,000 physical signatures through associations across the country. Letters to MPs and questions in the House at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) followed and the petition was presented to Lord Bach; detailed discussions led to the cuts being abandoned.

That 2005 campaign had flagged-up how little was being invested in bee health research, just £200, 000 per annum. The emergence of the huge colony losses in the USA through colony collapse disorder, which it was feared would affect the UK and Europe, compounding already mounting winter losses was worrying. Cuts to bee research at Rothamsted and other key university centres caused the BBKA to start the campaign for improved research funding. The 2007 BBKA Research Colloquium attended by leading scientists, Government and industry officials resulted in the BBKA’s £8 million Honey Bee Health Research ‘wish-list’.

Approaching Ian Gibson again, a meeting was arranged with Lord Rooker, whose refusal to act resulted in the major BBKA Honey Bee Health Research Campaign. This involved substantial association involvement, press, radio and TV coverage and lobbying of MPs. Ian was the key motivator and agitator at Westminster; through PMQs, Early Day Motions, Adjournment Debates, Parliamentary Briefings and the launch of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Bees, the campaign reached its zenith with the presentation of the BBKA’s petition containing 143,000 signatures to Number 10, during the legendary Westminster demonstration, ‘Smokers In Whitehall’. In due course and following a National Audit Office report, Hilary Benn, then Environment Minister, announced £4.3 million additional funding for the NBU and the BBSRC established the cooperative £10 million Insect Pollinators Initiative involving the Wellcome Trust, Defra and others.

It is true to say that through Ian’s energy, parliamentary knowledge and determination, standing shoulder to shoulder with the BBKA, bee research was saved, the profile of bees and the importance of pollinators massively enhanced and public awareness raised to the level enjoyed today. A notable collateral benefit was the renaissance of the BBKA with the huge growth in beekeeper numbers and which continues to this day. Never was an Honorary Fellowship, BBKA’s highest award, more richly deserved.

Ian Gibson (far left) leads the BBKA delegation to deliver the petition to No 10 during the Smokers in Whitehall demonstration.

Photo courtesy of Tim Lovett.