To mark World Bee Day, we take a look back at Imperial’s un-bee-lievable research into these pollinating insects.
Bees are essential to a healthy environment and healthy economy. We rely on bees and other insects to pollinate most of our fruit and vegetables. There are over 270 species of bees recorded in Great Britain and in the height of summer there can be up to 40,000 honeybees in each hive.
But as Imperial research shows, bee colonies may be under threat. As well as finding out more about threats to bees, researchers have been inspired to create bee-like drones and to protect our natural pollinators with the help of school students.
Flying falls short
Earlier this year, Imperial researchers found that bees exposed to a neonicotinoid pesticide fly only a third of the distance that unexposed bees are able to achieve. Flight behaviour is crucial for determining how bees forage, so reduced flight performance from pesticide exposure could lead to colonies going hungry and pollination services being impacted.
Foraging bees are essential pollinators for the crops we eat and the wildflowers in our countryside, gardens and parks. Any factor compromising bee flight performance could therefore impact this pollination service.
Intriguingly, exposed bees seemed to enter a hyperactive-like state in which they initially flew faster than unexposed bees and therefore may have ‘worn themselves out’.
First author of the study Daniel Kenna, from the Department of Life Sciences, said: “Neonicotinoids are similar to nicotine in the way they stimulate neurons, and so a ‘rush’ or hyperactive burst of activity does make sense. However, our results suggest there may be a cost to this initial rapid flight, potentially through increased energy expenditure or a lack of motivation, in the form of reduced flight endurance.”
It's not just bees’ flying that is affected by pesticides, but also their genes, with Imperial researchers finding that the activity of dozens of genes are changed in bees exposed to pesticides. This provides clues as to how these chemicals affect bee brains in the wild and why certain pesticides have been linked to bee colony declines.
The researchers analysed the activity of bumblebee genes after pesticide exposure. They found that dozens of genes can be affected, which are involved in a broad range of important biological processes.
They also found that different pesticides, even those that are very similar, affect the bees’ genes in different ways. Even more intriguingly, they found that bumblebee queens and workers from the same colony responded differently to the same pesticide.
Co-author Dr Richard Gill, from the Department of Life Sciences, said: “Our work reveals that neurotoxic pesticides not only directly target the cells of the nervous system, but also indirectly affect the normal activity of the exposed organism’s genes.”
Exposure to pesticides may also cause possible symptoms of addiction in bumblebees, as the more they are exposed to pesticide-laced food, the more they acquire a taste for it.
A study of bumblebee behaviour indicated that the risk of pesticide-contaminated food entering bee colonies may be higher than previously thought, which can have impacts on colony reproductive success.
Lead researcher Dr Richard Gill said: “Given a choice, naïve bees appear to avoid neonicotinoid-treated food. However, as individual bees increasingly experience the treated food they develop a preference for it.
“Interestingly, neonicotinoids target nerve receptors in insects that are similar to receptors targeted by nicotine in mammals. Our findings that bumblebees acquire a taste for neonicotinoids ticks certain symptoms of addictive behaviour, which is intriguing given the addictive properties of nicotine on humans, although more research is needed to determine this in bees.”
As well as investigating the impact of pesticides on bees, Imperial researchers in the Aerial Robotics Lab have also been inspired by bees when creating drones. The drones’ designs are inspired by nature: the flying robots will sense and swoop on damaged infrastructure like bees monitoring and building their hive. They can also alert nearby drones to an issue to rally a team response. Like many flying animals, the drones will also be soft and flexible to minimise impact damage to the building or the drones themselves.
To protect flying robots without hindering their flight, researchers were also inspired by origami to equip drones with lightweight, impact-absorbent cushioning to protect them. Dr Mirko Kovac, Director of the Aerial Robotics Lab said: “Many insects, such as flies or bees, use a combination of impact-avoidance techniques and impact resilience. They largely rely on collision sense-and-avoid systems – but they also have protective structures in case a collision does occur. We applied this very concept to our work.”
Imperial’s citizen science initiative the Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) helps the public to create habitats for the UK’s threatened bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects. Now the initiative has combined some of its best pollinator resources and is launching them across Europe, starting in Italy.
With funding from the National Geographic Society, the new project, called X-Polli:Nation, combines OPAL’s Polli:Nation survey about bees and other pollinators with its Planting for Pollinators tool, designed to make any outside space pollinator-friendly.
Students at St Alban’s School in Hampshire have been instrumental in helping to bring the project to life. X-Polli:Nation lead, Dr Poppy Lakeman Fraser said: “We want to provide a platform to support students to take direct action on human-induced changes to the natural world.”
Beekeeping at Imperial
Imperial’s South Kensington Campus has also had its very own colony of bees since 2011. The colony is managed by students and funded by Estates Operations, in a collaboration based on a commitment to raising awareness of sustainability.
The initiative allows the College community to make an active contribution to combating the plight of the honeybee.
Top image credit and images two and three: Andres Arce.
Article text (excluding photos or graphics) © Imperial College London.
Photos and graphics subject to third party copyright used with permission or © Imperial College London.
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