Clean bee

Environment and health

The Environment and health research theme is measuring and modelling the impact of environmental changes on ecosystems and agriculture. British honey bee colonies are under threat from pests, diseases and loss of flowers due to land-use changes. Honey bees are the principal pollinator of flowering plants in the UK and are a major factor in the production of food crops, contributing £200 million a year to the UK economy.

The UK's only Professor of Apiculture and his team at Sussex will carry out ground-breaking research into honey bee health and well-being, breeding hygienic honey bees to multiply the hygienic stock.

The University is Sussex is now the leading UK centre for research on the honey bee and other social insects.

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Help for the honey bee

The plight of honey bees is well documented. British colonies are under threat from pests, diseases and land-use changes, resulting in hive losses of up to 30 per cent. The consequences of this are more serious than a shortage of honey on the breakfast table. Honey bees are the principal pollinator of flowering plants in the UK and are a major factor in the production of food crops. They contribute £200 million per annum to the UK economy and approximately $100 billion worldwide, through crop pollination alone.

Bee hovering above flower

To investigate all aspects of honey bee and social insect biology, the University of Sussex has established the Laboratory for Apiculture and Social Insects, appointing Francis Ratnieks, the UK's only Professor of Apiculture, as its head. The main areas of research are: how do honey bees and insects organise themselves; how do they resolve their conflicts over who works and who lays eggs; improved beekeeping practices; honey bee diseases; breeding and conservation.

Professor Ratnieks and his team have just started ground-breaking research into honey bee health and well-being. The Sussex Plan comprises four projects, with the first project already underway. Hygiene is a natural genetic trait but rare in British honey bees. Hygienic bees remove dead or infected larvae and pupae from their cells, reducing the spread of disease. Hygiene also disrupts the breeding cycle of Varroa mites, which can kill a colony. The aim of the project is to breed a hygienic strain of the native British subspecies of the honey bee, the black bee, and to make breeder queens available to beekeepers for testing and to multiply the hygienic stock.

The second project involves researchers 'eavesdropping' on the bees and decoding their 'waggle dances', the signal made by foragers to communicate the direction and distance of flower patches to their nestmates. Decoding this complex signal will enable the research team to find out where in the landscape they forage. Landowners and policymakers will then be able to make informed decisions about helping honey bees by improving foraging.

Project three will involve testing and developing European and North American Varroa mite control methods under British conditions to find out which combinations of methods are effective, and extending this knowledge to beekeepers so that they can incorporate up-to-date science in their hive management.

The fourth project will monitor hives for pathogens and other causes of death in order to understand what is killing British colonies.

The cost of the Sussex Plan is approximately £2 million. So far £500,000 has been raised. In April the Government launched a £10-million initiative to help identify the main threats to bees and other insect pollinators. The research team hope to benefit from this funding. Professor Ratnieks says: 'I see the honey bee not just as an important animal in agriculture. It is also a gateway to biology - a huge range of questions, from understanding how eyes work to how societies function, have been studied in this one species. The University of Sussex is now the leading UK centre for research on this amazing animal and for social insects in general.'

Heather's perspective

Heather Moore - Junior Research Associate

'The Junior Research Associate (JRA) bursary scheme enabled one of the most rewarding experiences in my academic career. I studied honey bees in the new £250,000 bee and social insect lab for 10 weeks over the summer, loving every minute. I carried out original research, discovering that queen bees take twice as long to lay female eggs as male eggs - and I'm hoping to publish these results in a scientific journal. The scheme catapulted me into real-life research, and I now feel more confident overall as a student, as well as having a much clearer idea of the career I want to pursue. Being a JRA has enabled me to understand my degree topic from many further angles, see how the University functions, and make contacts that are invaluable to my academic success.'

Heather Moore
Junior Research Associate