Student buzzes the skies to map bee-friendly crops

Mihail Garbuzov taking aerial photos of oilseed crops during a flight over the University of Sussex campus

University of Sussex bee research student Mihail Garbuzov is a real high-flyer.

Mihail, a PhD student from the University's Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects (LASI) has been taking to the skies in recent weeks to create an aerial map of bee-friendly flowering crops of rape and linseed amid the Sussex countryside.

Mihail, whose doctoral research aims to help honey bees, is building a picture of which garden plants are attractive to honey bees. He also wants to find out just how attractive flowering crops such as short-lived yet nectar-rich rape and linseed are to foraging honey bees - and in particular how far bees will fly to these spring-blooming crops.

Over the past few weeks Mihail has headed off in a light aircraft from nearby Shoreham airport to map fields within a 6km radius of the University campus at Falmer. His photographs of yellow rape and blue linseed are then used to plot a Google Map, where fields of rape and linseed have been marked, respectively, in yellow and blue.

Rape and linseed are oil seed crops - the third most  oilseeds are the third most important crop in the UK after barley and wheat, with 686,000 ha under cultivation in 2010 (DEFRA figure). The seeds contain valuable oils that are extracted for culinary and other uses.

Mihail has been monitoring the landscape during the flowering season (April-May), from when the flowers first emerge, through peak flowering to the end of blossoming 14 to 21 days later.

Now Mihail will ascertain whether the distance to these fields plays a significant role when honey bees decide whether to forage there or visit flowers elsewhere such as hedgerows or urban gardens.

To do this, observation hives have been installed at the LASI and Dorothy Stringer School in Brighton.  Mihail says: "Dorothy Stringer pupils have been keen to help with the project and to have the opportunity to learn about and observe honey bees."

When foraging bees re-enter the hives, they will be filmed so that researchers can decode their waggle dances. The waggle dance is a form of communication unique to honey bees, which allows forager workers to tell their nest mates where a good source of nectar and pollen can be gathered.

The decoded dances will then be mapped to see if the bees have been foraging on rape or linseed.

Mihail's project forms part of the Sussex Plan for Honey bee Health and Wellbeing. The aim of the plan is to investigate the possible causes of honey bee colony decline. Honey bees are valuable contributors to the UK economy because they pollinate important food crops and are producers of honey and wax. They are also a fascinating source of study for biologists and other scientists because of their organizational and social behaviour.

Meanwhile, members of LASI will be guests at a special event - Bee the Buzz - at the Linklater Pavilion at the Railway Land Local Nature Reserve in Lewes, East Sussex, on Saturday 11 June, to open a permanent observation bee hive, built specially by Professor Ratnieks, for the public to view.  

The observation hive project, a joint endeavour between LASI and the Railway Land Wildlife Trust, adds to the wildlife attractions of the award-winning Trust's nature reserve and aims to show the public the fascinating world of honey bees, while linking the pavilion to the surrounding land via the bees' foraging.  A TV camera and large screen, sponsored by Lewes brewers Harveys, will allow visitors to get a close-up view of bees in the hive.  The LASI team will use the site for research into honey bee foraging behaviour.

Pupils from The Priory School in Lewes have already visited the pavilion, to hear a talk on honey bees by Professor Ratnieks. Their resulting art work is now on display in the pavilion.

The free event, which runs from 2pm to 6pm, will include talks from Professor Ratnieks and members of the LASI team, who will be exhibiting their work on bees and flowers, the waggle dance and the relationship between bees and humans. There will also be honey tastings and an opportunity to sample a Harveys beer.

Notes for Editors

For further information about Bee the Buzz and the Railway Land Project, visit

Helping the honey bee and insect pollinators in urban areas

One way is to make Britain more bee friendly by increasing the number of flowers that provide food (nectar and pollen) for honey bees and other pollinating insects. Urban areas are significant in terms of land use comprising nine per cent of UK land area (and 80 per cent of the population).

This project will determine which garden/park plants are especially attractive to honey bees by surveying existing garden and park plants, including trees and shrubs, to quantify honey bees and other insect visitors - with an emphasis on plants that bloom in the summer when flowers are scarcer than in spring.  The second part of the project will involve counting bees on experimental plantings to determine which are especially good (eg comparing varieties of lavender already grown in gardens, so that recommendations can be given as to especially good or bad varieties). 

In addition, the project will also carry out research to facilitate keeping hives in urban areas, such as allotments and gardens.

It can be challenging for beekeepers to find urban apiary locations. The research will investigate the efficacy of hedges or lattice fences around an apiary in reducing stinging, by forcing bees to fly high, thereby reducing collisions with humans. A key aim of this research is to provide information that will allow honey bees to be kept in allotments, thereby providing urban beekeepers places to keep hives and at the same time providing pollination.

Main aims

To determine which garden and park plants are most attractive to honey bees and other pollinating insects and to obtain data that will help in setting up apiaries in towns, in such a way as to minimise nuisance to neighbours.


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Last updated: Wednesday, 8 June 2011