Waitrose helps researchers to decode bee waggle dance

Bee on ceanothus

Grocery retailer Waitrose has donated £67,500 to honey bee research at the University of Sussex, where researchers are working to decode the bees' famous "waggle dance".

The donation will support doctoral student Fiona Riddell for three years and an undergraduate biologist (the recipient this summer is Lee Cooper) for three summers, allowing the next generation of scientists to gain experience and support vital research into the honey bee and the challenges it faces in the modern environment.

The number of hives in the UK has been in decline in recent decades, as the honey bee faces the challenges of climate change, pollution, intensive farming and the loss of wild flowers to forage on, pests such as the varroa mite and other diseases.  

Lee Cooper and Fiona Riddell, who will be working on the LASI waggle dance projectHoney bees are important not only for their honey, but because they pollinate many flowering plants, including food crops such as apples, beans and raspberries.  For this reason they are important to the UK economy, contributing around £166m to the UK economy annually.

The Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects (LASI) at the University of Sussex opened just over a year ago and is the UK's only university laboratory dedicated to honey bee research in the round. There are 12 researchers working in the laboratory, which is currently being extended.

The honey bee researchers are breeding disease-resistant 'hygienic' honey bees (to help keep hives disease-free), decoding waggle dances to determine how honey bees use the landscape for foraging, and helping honey bees in urban environments.  These key projects form the Sussex Plan for Honey Bee Health and Well Being, devised by Professor Ratnieks.

So far, researchers have found that forager bees have to travel furthest to find food in the summer, and that they do much of their foraging in urban and suburban areas. Progress is also being made in breeding hygienic honey bees and in conserving the native British honey bee, known as the black bee.

Fiona and Lee are already working on the waggle dance project. Professor Ratnieks explains what the waggle dance can tell researchers: "The waggle dance is a set of movements that bees use to communicate with their nestmates about profitable food sources. By studying the dance, we work out how far the bees must travel to meet their nutritional needs. The longer the dance, the further away the food source is. The further the bees must fly for food, the more energy they use."

He added: "This welcome donation by Waitrose shows that the interest in honey bees is out there. In supporting LASI, the public and business are making positive steps towards helping beekeeping and honey bees."

To date, LASI has raised over £750,000 via a range of donors including companies, beekeepers' groups, trusts and foundations and members of the public, including schoolchildren. These include Rowse Honey, Burt's Bees, the Nineveh Charitable Trust, Mr Michael Chowen, Mr David Read, the Body Shop Foundation, Marks & Spencer and the British Beekeepers' Association.

Alan Wilson, technical manager for Waitrose, says: "From this project we hope to ensure that farming, including organic farming, is not inadvertently carrying out any practices that could compromise bee life. With a better understanding of the habits of bees, we hope to influence our suppliers to manage their land appropriately."

Carolyn Rustall, for Waitrose, adds: "Working with our honey suppliers and their contacts at the Bee Farmers' Association we hope to increase the number of hives on our suppliers' land, while also improving biodiversity on farms and increasing the availability of British honey."

LASI will continue with its fund-raising efforts to ensure that its vital work continues.

The laboratory is also working with institutions such as Kew and the National Trust, with beekeepers and other researchers, including a project with the University of Copenhagen on bee genetics as part of the hygiene project.

Notes for Editors


For more information about LASI, the projects that make up the Sussex Plan and how you can get involved, visit: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/research/researchgroups/lasi/sussexplan  

University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune, Jacqui Bealing and Daniëlle Treanor. Tel: 01273 678 888. Email: press@sussex.ac.uk

View press releases online at: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/newsandevents/


Last updated: Monday, 28 June 2010