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 declines in recent years. These are thought to be linked to  in response to agricultural intensification, including pesticide use, loss of habitats and floral resources resourcesloss 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 of makes honeybees to environmental change and the popularity of beekeeping potentially make them ideal for monitoring changes in the countryside both over time and at a national scale. A big part of this is due to the large distances over the scale at 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 bees linked with floral resources.

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?
     

Supporting beekeepers

Participating beekeepers will receive analytical results from their honey samples. This will include a detailed breakdown of all the flower species found in the honey with an indication of the abundance of each. We will also supply a breakdown of the crops and other habitats surrounding your apiary based on analysis of satellite images.

Fully anonymised data showing regional differences in flowers visited by bees will be made available through the website portal.  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.

All the data we collect will be totally confidential, but this information will help us understand how environmental factors affecting honeybees. 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.
 

Where next?

The archived honey collected through the National Honey Monitoring Scheme will provide an extremely valuable resource for researchers to apply for funding in areas and so will provide a resource for future research.  Based on consultations with beekeepers, the key areas we hope to workexplore in future  on include:

  • Pathogens

We have already undertaken pilot studies to can explore and develop 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 further these methods further in future.

  • Molecular and Chemical Certification of Honey

Within the current scheme Currently, within the NHMS we are identifying 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, it is less ideal not intended 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 to a higher taxonomic level. 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.

  • Pesticides

We have recently analysed  samples from the scheme to investigate the presence of neonicotinoid pesticides residues in honey across the UK (see the article here).  We hope to extend this work in future to look for a wider range of pesticides in honey samples from different regions.

 

 

Funding

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.