Feature: The plight of the humble bee
UK research funders, including BBSRC, have joined together to invest up to £10M to help identify the main threats to bees and other insect pollinators.
Pollinators – including honey and bumble bees, butterflies and moths – play an essential role in putting food on our tables through the pollination of many vital crops. But worryingly, the numbers of pollinators have been declining steadily in recent years, with bee populations in the UK alone falling by between 10 and 15% over the last 2 years.
New funding approach
The biggest challenge for researchers studying this decline is to develop a better understanding of the complex relationships between biological and environmental factors which affect the health and lifespan of pollinators. These insects are susceptible to a variety of disease and environmental threats, some of which have increased significantly over the last 5 to 10 years. Climate change, in particular warmer winters and wetter summers, has had a major impact on pollinators.
BBSRC has joined up with Defra, NERC, the Wellcome Trust and the Scottish Government in a new £10M funding programme (note 1) to understand the threats to insect pollinators and to develop appropriate mitigation strategies.
Professor Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive said, "Without effective pollination we will face higher food costs and potential shortages. This programme will help us to understand why numbers [of pollinators] have decreased and the steps we could take to reverse this. Complex problems such as this require a modern systems biology approach, a strategy at the core of BBSRC’s vision. This will also feed into BBSRC’s wider food security research programme which aims to deliver the science necessary to provide the nutritious and affordable food we need for the future".
Speaking about the launch of the programme, Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said, "Aristotle identified bees as the most hard working of insects, and with one in three mouthfuls coming from insect-pollinated crops, we need to support bees and other pollinators.
"This funding will give some of Britain’s world-class researchers the chance to identify the causes of the decline we’re seeing in bee numbers, and that will help us to take the right action to help".
Colony collapse disorder
The catastrophic loss of honey bee colonies throughout the USA and in continental Europe has recently been associated with infection by a virus, Israel acute paralysis virus (IAPV), the spread of which may be linked to the Varroa mite.
In new research, recently funded by BBSRC, Professor Ian Jones from the University of Reading is looking to develop diagnostic tests that can be used by bee keepers to assess whether their hives are infected with IAPV. To date, progress in diagnostics and treatment for IAPV has been slow because the virus has never been grown in ‘pure culture’ in the laboratory. Prof. Jones and his team are using their expertise of baculovirus ‘vectors’ to incorporate the genome of IAPV, providing a method for virus study that is independent of the ability to isolate the virus from the wild.
Our changing landscape
Increases in the cultivation of mass-flowering crops, such as oilseed rape and field beans, has dramatically changed the UK’s floral landscape – but at what cost, or indeed benefit, to bees and other insects?
Recent studies of insect diversity at Rothamsted Research, an institute of BBSRC, show that, when in bloom, the amount of pollen and nectar provided by these crops greatly exceeds that provided by all other insect-visited flowering plants in arable landscapes combined. But we still have a poor understanding of the impact that this brief glut of floral resources has on pollinator populations or on the reproduction of wildflowers.
There is disagreement as to whether massflowering crops are of benefit to populations of bumblebees – they provide a lot of resources, but colony success requires a continuous supply of food throughout spring and summer – and some bee species avoid shallow flowers like oilseed rape. Mass-flowering crops are also likely to affect pollination and hence seed set in wildflowers of arable ecosystems. But it is unclear whether wildflowers will suffer adverse affects from competition with the crop for pollinators or through stigma-clogging with pollen from such crops, or conversely whether they will benefit from a boost to local pollinator populations.
- Part of the Living With Environmental Change (LWEC) partnership, a major initiative by UK funders to help the UK respond effectively to changes to our environment
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