Our overall aim
Both honeybees and wild bees have suffered declines in recent years. These are thought to be linked to agricultural intensification, including pesticide use and loss of habitats/ floral resources, as well as the emergence of new diseases and 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 ideal for monitoring changes in the countryside over time and at a national scale - due to the large distances over which honeybees forage, often traveling many kilometres from their hives. The honey collected by honeybees contains incredibly valuable information on the state of the landscape the bees live in and environmental pressures they are exposed to.
Working in partnership with UK beekeepers, the National Honey Monitoring Scheme aims to use honeybees to monitor long-term changes in the condition and health of the UK countryside. However, we need the help of beekeepers if this scheme is to work.
What are we going to do?
With the help of beekeepers we would like to collect honey samples from across the UK and continue to do this for many years. These samples will analysed using advanced DNA barcoding techniques to identify the species of plant pollen present. This will tell us what bees are feeding on in different parts of the country and at different times of year. This information will help us identify possible threats to the floral resources of pollinating insects.
All of the honey samples you send use will be carefully archived to enable future investigations of other threats to bees, including pesticide residues and the presence of certain bee diseases.
As part of the monitoring scheme we will also ask you to provide a few basic facts about your bee hives to help us put our results into context. This will include:
- 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?
Fully anonymised data showing regional differences in flowers visited by bees will be made available to the beekeeper's website account. This will include information on what you bees have been feeding on based on a DNA analysis of pollen, as well as what habitats – including those important for foraging bees – surround your hive location.
Identification of plant species present will be determined by matching of sequence data to a database of all publicly available plant DNA sequences. Identification, will be to the closest match and cannot be used for certification purposes.
Also provided is a breakdown of crops and other habitats surrounding your apiary, based on the analysis of satellite images.
All the data we collect will be totally confidential, but this information will help us understand how environmental factors affect floral resources. Further, in creating a long-term archive of honey (and potentially in the future other hive products such as pollen stores) we hope to support future research into beekeeping.
The archived honey collected through the Honey Monitoring Schemes will provide a uniquely valuable resource for researchers. Based on consultations with beekeepers, the key areas we hope to explore in future include:
We have already undertaken pilot studies to explore new DNA based approaches, for the early detection of known bee diseases - bacterial (e.g. Foulbrood), fungal (e.g. Nosema) and viruses (e.g. Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus and Deformed Wing Virus). We hope to develop these methods further in future.
- Molecular and Chemical Certification of Honey
Within the current scheme we identify the pollen within honey by sequencing a small part of a single plant-specific gene which has the most comprehensive database for plants. Although one gene is perfect for our purpose, environmental monitoring of change (we follow the sequence rather than the identification given), it is less ideal for the certification of honey. We have to give the closest match to the region we have sequenced; sometimes this is to the plant species level, other times it is only the plant family. It is known that different genes are better at identifying different plant species than others. We would like to develop an advanced multiple gene approach alongside chemical analysis to provide a more accurate picture of both the pollen content and carbohydrate composition of UK honey for certification purposes
We have recently published a study incorporating both plant DNA barcoding and chemical detection of neonicotinoid pesticide residues in honey across the UK (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agee.2020.107205). Further, a pilot study has been funded by DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) to extend this work to include a wider range of pesticides for a subset of NHMS 2019 samples (news item). We hope these data will enable future funding to be secured for temporal investigation into the prevalence of many pesticide residues in UK honey.
The Honey Monitoring Scheme is supported by national capability funding from UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology under the ASSIST programme. . National capability funding is provided to UKCEH directly from the Government to support long-term, large-scale monitoring of environmental change in the UK. UKCEH is an independent, not for profit research organisation.