Our overall aim
Honeybees are a crucial part of the UK and European economy, with some 26 million hives producing over 230,000 tons of honey a year. In addition to the direct benefits we get from them they also make a crucial contribution in terms of their role in pollinating crops, including oilseed rape, apples and many soft fruits. Worldwide this role of pollination has been estimated to have a value of £153 billion and maintain almost a 1/10th of the world’s food production.
Honeybees and wild bees have suffered in recent years in response to agricultural intensification including pesticide use, loss of wild flowers in agricultural land linked to habitat loss, new diseases and even climate change. Their sensitivity to the way we manage land in the UK has long been a cause for concern. However, this same sensitivity makes honeybees potentially really important for monitoring change at both a national scale and over time. A big part of this is the scale at which honeybees forage, often traveling many kilometres from their hives. They bring together information on what they are foraging on, what chemicals they are exposed to, and by looking at the health of the hive and how much honey is produced we can start to understand what the impact of these environmental pressures are for the bees themselves.
Working in partnership with UK beekeepers, the Honey Monitoring Scheme aims to use honeybees to monitor long-term changes in the condition and health of the countryside. However, we need the help of beekeepers if this scheme is to work.
What are we going to do?
Our principal goal is to collect honey samples from all across the UK, provided to us by beekeepers who have signed up to be part of the National Honey Monitoring Scheme. We want bee keepers who would like to provide us honey samples for at least several years, so that over time we can create a huge archive spanning the nation which has hundreds of samples of honey from every conceivable habitat, landscape and region.
Once we have the honey samples we want to:
- Identify plant pollen present within honey using advanced analytical techniques, including DNA barcoding. This will provide us with crucial information on what your bees are feeding on in the landscape. We want to know if they have access to lots of wild flowers or are they forced to feed on only a few plants. With this information we will be able to understand where bees are most likely to be stressed by poor diets. Several recent studies have shown that it is stressed bees that are the most likely to suffer from disease or be susceptible to pesticide exposure.
- We will use pesticide residue analyses to identify major types of pesticides which the honeybees are exposed to. While it’s extremely unlikely this will be at levels that may cause concern for human health, bees are often far more sensitive. We want to understand not only national patterns of where bees are most likely to be exposed to pesticides from agricultural land, but also to see when these risks change throughout the year. We have already been doing some of this work on neonicotinoid pesticides (http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0189681; http://www.sciencejournalforkids.org/science-articles/how-do-pesticides-get-into-honey)
We also want information on how well your hives are doing. With this we will be able to understand if existing or new risks (e.g. new pesticides or loss of key habitats) are affecting the health and productivity of bees across the country.
Some of the information we hope to get from you when you provide your samples are:
- How much honey is the hive or apiary producing
- Have you had any hive deaths
- Have you had any diseases, have you treated them for these diseases and did this have any effect.
All the data we collect will be totally confidential, but this information will help us understand how the environmental factors affect honeybees. Ultimately we aim to create a long-term archive of honey (and potentially in the future other hive products such as pollen stores) to support future research into beekeeping.
Future research goals
The scheme will also be an extremely valuable resource for the research community to explore new analytical techniques, including the potential for early detection of certain bee diseases, such as Foul brood and Nosema using new DNA based approaches.
Participating beekeepers will receive analytical results from their honey samples. Fully anonymised data will be made more widely available through the scheme portal.
The Honey Monitoring Scheme is supported by national capability funding from Centre for Ecology & Hydrology under the ASSIST programme. National capability funding is provided to CEH directly from the Government to support long-term, large-scale monitoring of environmental change in the UK.