Feature: Making a buzz about bees
BBSRC-funded researchers have come up with some creative ways to raise awareness of research into some of the problems facing bees and other pollinating insects - even setting up their own conservation trust to help put knowledge into practice.
© Hemera/Thinkstock 2010
Recent shocking headlines about high mortality rates in honeybees have highlighted our reliance on the pollination services provided by bees and other insects. Yields from crops such as oilseed rape, orchard fruit, soft fruit and beans, which depend on insects to transfer pollen from one flower to another, could otherwise reduce dramatically at an estimated cost of £440M a year to UK farming (ref 1).
The headlines have also served to highlight how much there is still to learn about factors, such as disease, that affect these insects, and how changes to farming practices can affect the fragile balance of not only pollinators but whole ecosystems.
"The fate of bees and plants are so intertwined that if you interfere with one, it will affect the other," says Professor Dave Goulson from the University of Stirling.
Going on a bee hunt
For the last six years Prof. Goulson has been funded by BBSRC to examine the factors affecting bumblebee populations in farmland, in collaboration with pollination ecologist Dr Juliet Osborne at Rothamsted Research, an institute of BBSRC, and mathematical modeller Professor Roy Sanderson at Newcastle University. Using a combination of GIS mapping, genetic fingerprinting and field work, the team was able to build up a clear picture about nest distribution, how far bumblebees fly to find food, and the dietary requirements of both rare and common species.
© iStockPhoto/Thinkstock 2010
"We now have a clear idea how to conserve bumblebees; they simply need enough of the right flowers, at the right times of year, provided in patches distributed at an appropriate spatial scale," Goulson explains. "Most farmers rely heavily on honeybees, but it's a risky strategy to rely on only one species. Also, honeybees are poor pollinators of some crops such as beans, whereas bumblebees are much better. Hence we should try to maintain diversity and conserve the broad range of insect species that contribute to pollination."
The theory is simple. But, with three species of bumblebee already lost and two more teetering on the brink of extinction, Goulson became increasingly frustrated that much of the research that goes on into how best to conserve declining species was slow to be translated into action.
"Farmers, nature reserve wardens and politicians do not read scientific journals," says Goulson. "Although I had some success in publicising my research in the general media it was not clear to me that anything I did made any practical difference to the ongoing declines of bumblebees."
Spreading the word
Not one to be disheartened, Goulson hit upon the idea of starting up a membership-based charity to promote bumblebee conservation issues; and so in 2006 the Bumblebee Conservation Trust was born. From humble beginnings, with no budget and no staff, the Trust has grown to over 7,000 members and six paid staff.
As well as undertaking many on-the-ground activities with farmers, children and gardeners, the Trust has been invited to meet with politicians, including Ministers and members of the Scottish and European Parliaments, and has featured widely in the national press. Earlier this year Goulson's efforts were recognised by BBSRC's Social Innovator of the Year Award.
One measure of the Trust's success is the 500 hectares of grassland - ideal habitat for bumblebees - that have been restored in collaboration with organisations such as the Grasslands Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. But there is still a lot to do: "We need to target more grassland in areas where small pockets of rare bumblebees, such as the Shrill carder bee and the great yellow bumblebee, are only just surviving," Goulson warns.
"If we can increase their small, isolated populations so that they can expand and
link up, these bees may have a future."
Working with bees and their keepers
In partnership with the East Anglian Beekeepers Association and the National Bee Unit, BBSRC is funding PhD student Ricarda Kather from the University of Sheffield to look at whether Varroa mites use chemical mimicry to stay undetected within hives, and whether potential changes within the bee chemistry could be caused by the mite or associated viruses, which might also affect a bee's ability to recognise strangers.
The project's close ties with beekeepers have a brought a number of benefits. As well as having access to thousands of colonies around the country, which will boost the scale of the project and the reliability of the project's results, Ricarda is receiving hands-on training in beekeeping skills as well as how to treat hives for various diseases and extract honey and wax.
And by talking to beekeepers she has gained a much better understanding of the trait, the politics involved and the issues most important to beekeepers; which will also influence which ideas she sees as priority to test.
© iStockPhoto/Thinkstock 2010
National bumblebee nest survey
In 2004, more than 700 members of the public took part in the National Bumblebee Nest Survey to record the presence or absence of nests in sites across the UK. The results showed that gardens are vital habitats for nesting bumblebees as are hedgerows, fence lines and woodland edges.
Rothamsted Research's Dr Juliet Osborne, who co-ordinated the survey as part of her joint BBSRC-funded research with Prof. Goulson and Prof. Sanderson, said, "We were delighted that so many people volunteered to do the survey and the success of the survey showed that public participation is very useful for monitoring bumblebees.
"This work will help guide management initiatives to promote bumblebee conservation."
Insect pollinators initiative
As this magazine goes to press, BBSRC is hosting an event on 22 June to launch nine research projects, together worth up to £10M, funded through the multi-agency Insect Pollinators Initiative.
Varroa on pupa. © Stephen Martin, The University of Sheffield
The Initiative is co-funded by BBSRC, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Natural Environment Research Council, the Scottish Government and the Wellcome Trust, under the auspices of the Living with Environmental Change (LWEC) partnership.
Several of the projects will look at monitoring and controlling diseases that affect honeybees (and sometimes bumblebees too). Others will study the nutritional needs of bees - how changes in land use might affect availability of appropriate nutrition and whether malnutrition affects susceptibility to disease.
There will also be research into the impact of changing environments and land use on all pollinators, including how pollinators are impacted by urban environments, as well as research into the relative importance of different pollinators, including the different contributions from wild and managed populations.
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