Helping Bees and Agricultural Pollination in Farm Land


Bees and agriculture need each other—bees pollinate many crops and agricultural land, which covers 75% of Britain, is a home for much of our wildlife and is also foraging territory for bees. The project, which is funded by a doctoral studentship (student Nick Balfour) from Waitrose, will investigate a range of questions including those below.

1. Investigating honey bee foraging during apple pollination by decoding waggle dances

Nicholas Balfour

PhD student Nick Balfour at a Kent apple farm

This project will be carried out in one of the country’s main apple-growing regions, West Kent near Tonbridge in Kent (only 30 miles from Sussex University), with the assistance of Adrian Scripps Ltd., one of the major apple growers. The main aim will be to determine where honey bees from hives located in apple orchards are actually foraging, and whether this is on apples or not. Do the bees, for example, get diverted to neighbouring fields of blooming oil seed rape or to wild flowers, or to nearby orchards owned by other apple growers? Foraging locations will be determined by decoding waggle dances. In addition, samples of pollen will be collected using traps on hive entrances and identified to determine the range of flowers visited and the relative importance of apples. The results will help growers use bee hives rented for pollination more effectively. The UK apple industry is expanding with new orchards and new varieties, and is being helped by growing public interest in home-grown produce and the willingness of supermarkets such as Waitrose to stock British apples. Apples are the most important crop grown in the UK that require bee pollination.

2. Bee hives on farms: what do farmers want and how can farmers help?

This project will survey farmers to determine how many already have an apiary for bee hives on their farm, how many would like to have an apiary where a beekeeper can manage hives, how many have suitable locations for an apiary, how many keep hives themselves or would like to. It will also determine whether or not the farms surveyed grow any crops that may benefit from honey bee pollination.

3. Combining dance decoding and site visits to determine the value of agricultural land as summer forage for bees

The Apiary at College Farm, DuxfordThe Apiary at College Farm, Duxford

Ongoing LASI research decoding waggle dances as part of Project 2 of the Sussex Plan has shown that during July and August honey bees do much of their foraging in agricultural land, often at long distances (up to c. 10km). This shows the importance of farmland as a source of forage. But what are the bees actually foraging on—which habitats, field types and plant species? The project will make field trips to the sites advertised by the bees’ dances to determine what plant species they are foraging on, and how attractive these are for other pollinating insects such as bumble bees, solitary bees, hover flies and butterflies.

The video below, showing clips made in spring 2012, gives information on an ongoing project using the honey bee waggle dance to investigate honey bee foraging during apple pollination. The project is being carried out by PhD student Nick Balfour and his supervisor Professor Francis Ratnieks of the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects (LASI) at the University of Sussex. This project is part of Nick's PhD on "Helping Bees and Agricultural Pollination in Farm Land" which is part of the "Sussex Plan for Honey Bee Health & Well Being". The study was carried out at Moat Farm and Capel Grange Farm, Five Oak Green, in west Kent, which is one of the UK's main apple growing areas. Apples are the most important UK crop requiring bee pollination. Funding was provided by Waitrose. The plan is to gather more data in spring 2013 before writing up. The results should provide valuable information on using bees effectively in apple pollination.