• Article
  • Learning
  • CSP

Three ways EI is helping bees

On World Bee Day, we are celebrating our precious pollinators and the work our scientists are doing to aid their long-term survival.

May 18, 2020

Bees are essential for life as we know it. Thanks to their pollination of crops and wildflowers, we can enjoy the food and environment we so often take for granted. Without them, supermarket shelves would be scarce of fruits and vegetables. On World Bee Day, we are celebrating our precious pollinators and the work our scientists are doing to aid their long-term survival.

The headlines around bee decline make depressing reading, with some touting the dawning of a sixth mass extinction. Habitat loss, insecticides and environmental pollution have all taken a heavy toll on wild bee populations.

Added to those woes, Earlham Institute scientists have previously worked on projects that investigate the devastation suffered by commercial beekeepers, whose hives are prone to infections, such as varroa mite and moku virus.

Without those commercial honeybees, there would be almost no almonds. Without the wild pollinators of the UK, there’d be precious few wildflowers - and you’d be getting pretty bored of the limited fruit and veg on offer at the supermarket.

Help, however, is at hand. Global efforts are underway to not only track and slow the decline of bees, but also find ways of boosting their numbers. Much of this relies on understanding bee behaviour, including looking at their genome for clues on how populations have changed over the years.

Previous EI research has involved investigating the devastation of hives due to varroa mite and moku virus

EI research has investigated the devastation suffered by commercial beekeepers from hive infections such as moku virus
Open quote marks

Habitat loss, insecticides and environmental pollution have all taken a heavy toll on wild bee populations.

Closing quote marks

Here are three Earlham Institute projects that are helping bees...

1. Exploring the natural history of British pollinators

Since the dawn of industrial agriculture, there has never been such a threat to bees as there is now. As useful as pesticides are for reducing crop loss, they are also responsible in a large part for the decline of off-target insects, including bees. Perhaps more devastating to wild insects is simply the fact that we have precious little natural habitat remaining, in what is a country divided into cities and farmland.

Scientists in the Haerty Group at EI, along with collaborators at the Natural History Museum (NHM), the University of East Anglia (UEA) and Imperial College London, are trying to understand just what that effect has been. They are revealing the natural history of British pollinators, including bees, by exploring the genetic diversity of bees that are alive today and comparing them with samples collected by the NHM over the last hundred years or so.

By comparing the DNA from bees past and present, the scientists will be able to understand how the populations of different species have changed over the years, while also getting a national picture of the health of today’s bees. This information will be invaluable in efforts to ensure that we give bees the best possible chance to survive in the long term, informing conservation efforts.

This is all part of the Darwin Tree of Life project, which is a nationwide effort to sequence the DNA of all of the animals, plants, fungi and protists in the UK. A related project underway in the Patron Group at EI is looking at how we can look at the DNA of wildflowers to provide new medicines. Ensuring the survival of bees also ensures the survival of wildflowers, and vice versa.

EI and collaborators are exploring the genetic diversity of bees and other pollinators

Comparing DNA for bee conservation and biodiversity
Open quote marks

Since the dawn of industrial agriculture, there has never been such a threat to bees as there is now.

Closing quote marks

2. Finding out what plants bees prefer to pollinate

A rather fascinating project, which has been the inspiration for EI’s Bee Trail activity, has been the Leggett Group’s work on understanding what plants bees prefer to pollinate. Along with collaborators at UEA, NHM and the University of Cambridge, the group have been applying the latest DNA sequencing technologies to explore the make-up of pollen sacs found on wild bees.

This is very important research. Not only are bees responsible, as we have mentioned, for much of the pollination of fruits and vegetables, but they also pollinate many of our wildflowers, and therefore it’s crucial to understand which plants they prefer if we are to benefit bees, wildflowers and farmers.

The first piece of research, first-authored by PhD student Ned Peel, established a method that allows us to examine the pollen found on a bee and match the DNA of grains discovered to that of wild flowers.

This uses the rather exciting technology of the Oxford Nanopore MinION, which allows the scientists involved to semi-quantitatively check which plants a certain bee preferred to visit. This can be done in real time, meaning that we can get a quick and relatively accurate picture of pollinator preference at a point in time.

Extrapolating this project would mean that we could get a decent national picture of what plants bees prefer to pollinate, when and where, which would be invaluable for conservation efforts and for boosting the productivity of farms.

The next stage of the project will see PhD student Elie Kent of Lynn Dicks’ lab (University of Cambridge and UEA) using the technology to measure pollinator preferences in orchards. In this way, we will be able to understand the competition for bees between fruit trees and the flowers found in and around them.

The Oxford Nanopore MinION is a portable USB device for DNA sequencing samples (including bee pollen) in the field for real-time analysis

Three ways EI is helping bees - Oxford Nanopore MinION for sequencing bee pollen
Open quote marks

The research, first-authored by PhD student Ned Peel, established a method that allows us to examine the pollen found on a bee and match the DNA of grains discovered to that of wild flowers.

Closing quote marks

Is your bee hotel really helping bees?

EI developed the Bee Trail as a public engagement activity to bring our pollinator-protecting research projects to life. As part of this work, we partnered with Bee Saviour Behaviour, a community project based in Norwich dedicated to bee conservation, on a citizen science campaign to help us understand how people are using bee hotels.

Launched at the beginning of May, this campaign aims to establish best practice in using bee hotels so that they can have a positive effect on bee populations in the back garden. British gardens take up more space than even our national parks. They are, therefore, an essential area to enhance pollinator habitats.

The simple survey, which will take a matter of minutes to fill out, will provide us with valuable information which can then be used to boost other scientific endeavours - linking particularly well with our Darwin Tree of Life efforts to understand the national diversity of bee populations. It also provides a fantastic opportunity to get out into the garden and reconnect with nature.

Open quote marks

Launched at the beginning of May, this campaign aims to establish best practice in using bee hotels so that they can have a positive effect on bee populations in the back garden.

Closing quote marks

Article author

Peter Bickerton

Scientific Communications & Outreach Manager