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Press release

  • 16 April 2009

A boost for honeybee research as university lab opens

Flying bee

A bee at work foraging for nectar

Bee hive

Sussex scientists will study the "waggledance"

Good news for the British honeybee.

The new Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects (LASI) at the University of Sussex, which will conduct research into the ailing British honey bee, has been officially opened by Lord May of Oxford, former Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government.

Speaking at the event, Lord May welcomed the University of Sussex laboratory as a much-needed resource for the relatively neglected study of insects, from which Man could learn much.

He said: "If you are interested in fundamental questions, the social organisms [such as bees and ants] are the most illuminating. It's the small things that run the world."

He added that it was odd that the Government had not yet put public funds alongside private donations into excellent centres such as the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects at the University of Sussex.

An audience of around 200 guests toured the new laboratory, which will conduct in-the-round research into honeybees and other social insects, such as ants, wasps and other bees.

Those present included:

* representatives from beekeepers' associations from around the UK and Ireland;

* Food and Environment Research Agency;

* Donors to the campaign, from Rowse Honey to Isobel Ponsford, a ten-year-old schoolgirl from Devon who raised money with her school friends.

Professor Francis Ratnieks, the UK's only Professor of Apiculture, gave a lecture on the importance of honey bees.

He believes that a holistic approach to social insect research - covering both pure scientific study and research that has practical applications - can help to resolve the problems faced by honeybees and beekeepers.

Guests heard about the progress of four research projects specifically to do with honeybees, which form the Sussex Plan for Honeybee Health and Wellbeing.

Professor Ratnieks, who is a beekeeper as well as a scientist, said: "Honeybees are important. They make honey but, more importantly, they are the principal pollinator of flowering plants in the UK and therefore a major contributor to the production of food crops and flowers. Honeybees contribute £191.8m per annum to the UK economy through crop pollination alone."

The British honeybee is under threat from pests, diseases and a loss of flowers in the countryside. This has resulted in reported hive losses up to 30% in the winter of 2008. The situation is worse in other countries, but Professor Ratnieks, along with other scientists and beekeepers, advocates action now to avert a more serious threat to UK bees in the future.

The National Audit Office cited work at the University of Sussex in its recent report on the health of honeybees, and recommended that the Government supports the work of higher education institutions to help address the principal threats to honeybee health.1

Professor Ratnieks and his team of bee biologists are seeking to raise £1m for the Sussex Plan research projects that will address the causes of decline and death in British honeybee colonies, and have raised £369k so far. Donations have come from private individuals, companies and charitable trusts, including Rowse Honey, local benefactor Michael Chowen and the Nineveh Charitable Trust.

Dr David Bondi, Managing Director of Rowse Honey, said: "Rowse Honey is delighted to be supporting Professor Ratnieks' crucial research into honeybee health. Our £100,000 contribution has helped to get the ball rolling, but much more needs to be spent on bee research to ensure that solutions are found to the honeybee health issues. We are committed and will continue to lobby Government until the further funds promised are spent. Rowse congratulates the University of Sussex on the opening of its new Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects which marks the commendable work being carried out by leaders in the field."

The first project - breeding more hygienic bees who can keep the hives clear of disease and pests - is already under way, and further funding will be used for the other three projects:

  • How good is the British countryside for honeybees: Decoding the communication dances made by forager bees to determine where worker honeybees are foraging;
  • Learning from other countries: Testing and developing European and North American Varroa control methods under British conditions and extending knowledge and good practice to beekeepers;
  • Monitoring hives for pathogens and other causes of death: What is killing British honeybee colonies?

The lab comprises 50 bee hives and five indoor observation hives, (building to 100 hives plus 10 observation hives over the coming year), seven researchers (building to 12 to 14 over the next year) and another three apiaries on the University of Sussex campus.

Professor Ratnieks said: "Universities carry out most of the honeybee research conducted in the UK. The University of Sussex has made a major and timely commitment to honeybee biology."

Tim Lovett, President of The British Beekeepers' Association (BBKA) said: "The BBKA congratulates University of Sussex's commitment to the honeybee and the challenges and threats it faces through disease and habitat loss. The establishment of LASI under the expert and enthusiastic leadership of Professor Ratnieks is a beacon of hope not just for beekeepers but also the general public, which has expressed its concern over the future of the honey bee and its vital role in food production and the wild environment.

"We urge honey bee researchers to beat a path to the Government's door to demand funds for the wide range of research that is needed to solve the honey bee's problems."

1 Defra: The Health of Livestock and Honeybees, National Audit Office, 4 March 2009

Notes for editors

The official opening of the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects took place on Tuesday 7 April,  at the Michael Chowen Lecture Theatre in the Brighton and Sussex Medical School Building, Biology Road, on the University campus. 


For interviews, copies of the Sussex Plan for Honeybee Health and Wellbeing, photographs and expert comment, please contact the University of Sussex Press office.


University of Sussex Press officers: Maggie Clune, Danielle Treanor and Jacqui Bealing. Tel: 01273 678 888 or email Alternatively, contact Maggie Clune on 07817 207 550.


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