The plight of the honeybee

A joint funding package of £10 million has been granted to investigate pollinators' decline. Zoe Corbyn reports

April 23, 2009

The health of honeybees and other pollinators is to be investigated with an extra £10 million in funding announced this week.

The money has been allocated amid growing alarm among everyone from bee-keepers to politicians about the decrease in honeybee numbers. In the UK, the bee population is thought to have fallen by between 10 and 15 per cent over the past two years alone, and numbers are also declining globally.

The insects are susceptible to a variety of disease and environmental threats, including climate change, and more research is desperately needed to find out why they are declining and what can be done to reverse the trend.

Albert Einstein once speculated that if the bee disappeared from the face of the planet, humankind would only survive for another four years.

Honeybees' contribution to the pollination of crops in the UK is vital to food production; it is estimated to be worth more than £190 million annually.

The money for the new Pollinators Initiative is being provided by five funders as part of the cross-government programme entitled Living with Environmental Change.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) - which recently announced a funding boost for the area - and the Wellcome Trust are each putting up £2.5 million, with the BBSRC set to lead the initiative.

Contributions are also coming from the Natural Environment Research Council (Nerc) and the Scottish Government.

Douglas Kell, BBSRC chief executive, said: "We are facing a fundamental problem with the decline of bees and other pollinators.

"They have an absolutely crucial role in pollinating many of our staple crops. Without effective pollination we would face higher food costs and potential shortages. This programme will help us to understand why numbers have decreased, and the steps we could take to reverse this."

The programme will concentrate on analysing the "complex interactions" between biological, social and environmental factors that affect the health and longevity of all pollinators, with the aim of providing vital clues about the reasons for the steep declines.

Funders will shortly start defining the details with a call expected in the summer; the programme is intended to fund multidisciplinary research to study the problem.

Pat Goodwin, head of pathogens, immunology and population health at the Wellcome Trust, said the decline of the honeybees could have many causes, with the Varroa mite (a bee parasite), environmental toxins and climate change working together.

"The bottom line is that we need multidisciplinary research," she said. "We don't just want to carry on getting standard data ... It has got to be innovative and multidisciplinary."

She added that the bee research community was currently "very small" and that there needed to be an "influx" of researchers to the area. And she stressed that the initiative covered all pollinators - bumblebees, certain types of fly, butterflies and moths - because they interacted with honeybees, played an important role in pollination themselves and are also declining.

However, one bee researcher whose expertise has not so far been accessed by the funders has questioned the direction of the programme. Francis Ratnieks, who is based at the University of Sussex and has been researching the insects for more than 25 years, is the only professor of apiculture in the UK.

His new Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects has just been officially opened, and he is in the process of raising £1.9 million for his "Sussex plan for honeybee health and wellbeing".

This five-year plan comprises four projects: breeding disease-resistant hygienic honeybees; decoding bees' "waggle dance" to determine where the bees are foraging; testing and developing methods to control Varroa mites; and monitoring hives to work out why they are dying.

So far he is operating with £360,000 he has raised through donations from sources ranging from schoolchildren to the private company Rowse Honey, which has put up £100,000.

He welcomed the injection of more cash into the area, but said the funders had been slow to react to the problem facing bees and criticised the time it would take before funding actually flowed to researchers.

He also questioned the decision to widen the initiative to include other pollinators. "It started off as honeybees, then it became honeybees and pollinators, then it became pollinators and honeybees and now it is pollinators," he said, stressing that it was honeybees that were most important and the most at risk.

"I have no problem if the government gives £100 million and every species of insect that pollinates can be studied, (but with £10 million) we need to ensure that a substantial amount of funding goes to honeybee research," he said.

He added that he would be waiting to see the details of the call before applying for funds.

"Mine are fairly simple projects. I can only apply if the remit includes honeybees and also includes projects that aren't necessarily cutting-edge science," he said.

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