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Bee research is buzzing

Posted 10/04/2012 by cgodfrey

Nothing conjures up thoughts of summer better than the sight of a bee making its way from blossom to flower – and the summer-like weather we experienced oh-so-briefly recently in the UK brought the bees out in my garden. The rapid drop in temperature over the Easter weekend must have come as rather a shock for the bees but the vagaries of the weather are not the only challenge for the average colony.

Much has been made of the collapse of honey bee colonies over recent years, partly due to so-called Colony Collapse Disorder, but other bee colonies, including those of bumble bees, have also been suffering too.

One of the major killers of honey bees around the world has been the Varroa destructor mite, but help is at hand as a result of a collaboration between researchers at the University of Aberdeen and the National Bee Unit, part of the UK Food and Environment Research Agency. The scientists have discovered how to ‘knock down’ genes in the parasitic mite resulting in its death, but so far the work has been focused in the lab. With a new grant of over £250,000 from the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and Vita (Europe), a specialist in mite control and honeybee health, the team hopes to take its work closer to developing a commercial product.

Aberdeen University’s Alan Bowman, who is leading the research, emphasises the importance of finding a workable solution: ‘Honey bees are incredibly important because of their pollination of flowers of both wild and farmed plants. But their numbers are seriously declining year on year and while there are probably several reasons for this, one of the most important factors is Varroa destructor that sucks the blood from bees and transmits serious viral diseases.’

But as Max Watkins, Vita’s technical director points out, identifying a solution is not easy. ‘Finding treatments that kill varroa mites, but don’t harm honeybees, bee products or the environment is not easy. The challenge is heightened because the relatively short life cycle of the varroa mite means that resistance to a single treatment can often develop quite quickly unless beekeepers alternate treatments of different types.’

Unintended effects of pesticides on bees has been highlighted by reports from the UK and France published online recently by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) at the Science Express website of the AAAS journal Science. As the co-author of one of the studies, Dave Goulson, from the University of Stirling in Scotland, has pointed out that some bumblebee species have declined hugely, with several previously common species in North America having all but disappeared and three species becoming extinct in the UK.

Both studies have focused on the impact of neonicotinoid insecticides on bumblebee colonies. In the Stirling study, colonies of bumblebees have been exposed to low levels of the insecticide imidacloprid, similar to those likely to be experienced in the wild, and then placed in an enclosed field site for six weeks. The colonies were weighed at the start and finish of the period and compared with control colonies. Treated colonies were an average 8-12% smaller than the controls at the end of the experiment; they also produced about 85% fewer queen bees, a factor that is significant in the establishment of new colonies after winter die-off.

In the French experiment, the focus was on the possible effect of a different neonicotinoid insecticide, thiamethoxam, on the bees’ homing instincts using free-ranging bees fitted with miniature radio-frequency identification (RFID) microchips. The study, conducted by the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), showed that bees exposed to non-lethal levels of the insecticide were two to three times more likely to die while away from the colony than untreated controls.

‘Our study raises important issues regarding pesticide authorisation procedures,’ the study author INRA’s Mikael Henry told Reuters news agency. ‘So far, they mostly require manufacturers to ensure that doses encountered in the field do not kill bees, but they basically ignore the consequences of does that do not kill them but may cause behavioural difficulties.’

This is not the first time that the finger has been pointed at pesticide use, but while bees would be sorely missed in my garden, the potential effect of the loss of such pollinators on the global food supply would be disastrous.

The problem of insect decline will be addressed at an SCI conference:
Insect Decline: The Causes and the Role of Agriculture in Mitigation
Rothamsted Research, Harpenden, UK
25 April 2012, 09.30 - 17.00
Organised by the SCI’s BioResources Group
Website: http://www.soci.org/General-Pages/Display-Event?EventCode=PEST354

Neil Eisberg - Editor

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