The Bee Trail
Bees are in drastic decline, which affects the food we eat. Without bees and other pollinators, our supermarket shelves would look pretty bare of fruits and vegetables and our diet would look much more dull indeed. Perhaps one way to bolster their survival is to plant the right sources of pollen. But just what flowers do bees like in the first place? And how do we track them?
Our award-winning public engagement team at Earlham Institute has developed the Bee Trail, a brand new public engagement activity which is based upon a real scientific project involving the work of Ned Peel, a PhD student in EI's Leggett Group, along with collaborators including Lynn Dicks of the University of Cambridge and Douglas Yu of the University of East Anglia. Following its successful debut at the Norwich Science Festival, the Bee Trail has been selected to be showcased at the highly prestigious Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition in London.
Bees are in drastic decline, which affects the food we eat. In fact, bees contribute about £700 million to the UK economy alone, and that's because they - along with lots of other pollinators - are responsible for putting fruits and vegetables on the dinner table. Without the pollination that bees provide, our food choices would look pretty dull. Perhaps one way to bolster their survival is to plant the right sources of pollen. But just what flowers do bees like in the first place? And how do we track them?
What about in different months and in different areas? How do we make sure that bees are visiting the agricultural plants we want them to? The Earlham Institute’s Bee Trail aims to explain a complex research project through an easy-to-understand activity to increase public awareness, science communication and impact, but also an inventive and immersive showcase of science facts and technology, to increase public awareness, science communication and impact.
Introducing the EI Bee Trail.
Combining an innovative LEGO DNA sequencer – developed by EI researchers – with an interactive and explorative activity, the Bee Trail helps participants go through the motions of an active research project while getting to grips with bioinformatics and data-driven biology.
The research in question is called RevMet – a collaborative investigation by scientists here at EI, along with the UEA and the NHM – which is allowing us to quantitatively measure how much of a certain species is present in an environmental sample. In the case of this project, the sample was bee pollen.
The bee trail allows members of the public to explore just how that science was done, albeit through stickers and LEGO bricks rather than pollen grains and DNA.
We will be showcasing the Bee Trail, as well as a live DNA sequencing experiment and a citizen science campaign centered around bee hotels, at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, along with partners at Bee Saviour Behaviour, the University of East Anglia, the University of Cambridge, and the Natural History Museum.
Mascot Barney Bee at the Norwich Science Festival 2019
I feel public engagement is SO important. It encourages trust, interest and passion in the science which is vital.
~ Participant in EI Bee Trail, Norwich Science Festival 2019.
Where do bees collect pollen?
In the past, researchers have tried collecting pollen from thousands of different flowers and then analysing the pollen DNA from each flower, attempting to match it. Instead, wouldn't it be easier to solve this problem by using a different approach?
That's exactly what our scientists have been able to do, using new technology developed at EI that makes it possible to go out in to the field and in real-time, carefully collect the mixed sample of pollen from the bees and then sequence the DNA to see if it can be matched to a database of known flower pollen DNA.
How does the Bee Trail work?
The trail, headed up by our mascot Barney Bee, takes visitors on a journey of discovery to find different species of bees and the plants they pollinate. Attached to each bee is a pollen grain sticker with a unique DNA sequence, which guests are invited to build with LEGO bricks and then put through our LEGO DNA sequencer to discover what plant each bee has been visiting.
At the end of a successful trail, after matching the correct pollen grain to the plant it belongs to, participants receive a bag of wildflower seeds - and are encouraged to share pictures and videos (using the social media hashtag: #EIBeeTrail) as they plant these in their gardens or other areas set aside for cultivating more wildflower meadows, to help towards reversing the decline in the bees & wildflowers alike.
It's important to note that this research also aims to help agriculture, as through understanding what plants bees prefer, we can understand how different wildflowers and crop plants compete for the same pollinators.
Visitors to Norwich Science Festival enjoying the Bee Trail
DNA Sequencing... ...with LEGO™
So now that you've found the bee-autiful bees and collected the pollen (stickers) from them, it's time to use our unique LEGO DNA sequencer to work out which plant each pollen grain is from.
The first ever LEGO DNA 'channel' sequencer, the Blocksford Brickopore, helps us to explain the complexities of DNA sequencing, metagnomics and more in a simple, easy to access way. The Blocksford Brickopore LEGO Sequencer was officially launched at the Norwich Science Festival in 2018, which then led to the development and release of the Mk2 version at the same festival in October 2019. The official launch occurred in November 2019, with the full step-by-step instructions and open-source software available online to allow anyone to build their own LEGO sequencer.
Meet the people behind the science
Dr Richard Leggett is Group Leader of EI's Technology Algorithm's Group and acts as Ned Peel's primary PhD supervisor. Richard's research is focused on applying new DNA sequencing technologies and developing computational tools to get the most out of them. On the bee pollen project, Richard helped to design the sequencing approach and the bioinformatics analysis.
Ned Peel is a PhD student based at the Earlham Institute. He is developing software to help identify the species found in mixed environmental samples using some of the latest DNA sequencing technology (the Oxford Nanopore MinION, which we use in the real life bee trail).
Ned works both in the lab and on the computer, extracting DNA from bee-collected pollen and leaf tissue samples, and sequencing the DNA, as well as developing the RevMet (reverse metagenomics) analysis pipeline that helps us match pollen to the correct plant.
Dr Lynn Dicks is an Ecology Lecturer at the University of Cambridge Zoology Department and acts as Elie's primary supervisor. She is an insect ecologist and conservation scientist. Her research group focuses on how to support important animal groups such as pollinators and natural enemies (predators like spiders and wasps that eat pests) in farmland. On the bee pollen project Lynn set up the partnership with Berryworld and is helping design the sampling methods and analyses.
Elie Kent is a PhD student at the University of East Anglia (UEA), who is using this new method of DNA sequencing to better understand insect pollination of berry crops in the UK. Last year she conducted field research on blueberry and raspberry farms, catching bees and taking their pollen (don't worry, no bees were harmed!). Back at the Earlham Institute she's been sequencing the pollen DNA, allowing her to identify which species of flower the bees have collected pollen from.
The Bee Trail is a great way to explore the science behind understanding pollination, but we are going much further for the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition.
We will be helping to coordinate a national citizen science programme that should help us better understand the effect of using bee hotels.
Bee Saviour Behaviour
We have teamed up with Bee Saviour Behaviour, an award-winning social enterprise aimed at educating and campaigning to make our cities more bee friendly and biodiverse, through workshops, school visits and citizen science projects.
The team will be running a citizen science workshop alongside our EI Bee Trail at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, where they will be demonstrating how to make your own bee hotel by upcycling materials destined for landfill.
Bee hotels are an example of a way to attract pollinators in to a flower or vegetable garden and are places for solitary bee species that live alone, rather than in hives, to make their nests. However, we don't actually have any empirical evidence of whether people are using them properly, or whether they're really working how we'd like.
Therefore, through a survey to be launched in March, we aim to put some data to the question of 'how are we using bee hotels?' The results will be collected in the run-up to the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition and displayed at the event, with tips on how to make the most of your bee hotels!
The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition
The EI Bee Trail has been selected amongst strong competition to go to the highly prestigious Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2020. However, following careful consideration of the current course of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, the difficult decision has now been taken to postpone the 2020 Summer Science Exhibition. More information on this event and our participation will be updated here when further information and decisions have been taken by The Royal Society about if and when this event will be rescheduled.
The EI Bee Trail will be exhibited at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition