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Environmental Stewardship

Innovation highlights: 3 Real Ways of Improving Bee Health (and knee-jerk Political Decision Making is not one of them)

With all of the shenanigans going on in the European Commission when it comes to the vote to ban the remaining outdoor uses of neonicotinoid seed treatments, it can be easy to ignore all the great innovations coming along to help scientists design new bee-friendly insecticides, and to help beekeepers protect their bee hives. I would like to highlight three of them; all of them innovative; none of them politically motivated.

  1. Can you predict whether a bee is going to be sensitive to an insecticide?

The problem: 

  • Pests that eat plants have had to evolve to metabolise or break down chemicals such as nicotine which the plant makes to defend itself from such “herbivores”.
  • Such methods of dealing with plant chemicals means that they are very good at developing ways of becoming resistant to pesticides. 
  • The fact that bees do not graze on the growing parts of the plant means that they are exposed to plant defense mechanisms – indeed, the plant positively welcomes pollinators with a prize of nectar.
  • However it means that they are relatively unprepared evolutionary to deal with other chemicals such as pesticides, making it very difficult for researchers to develop bee-friendly insecticides.

The solution:  Researchers at Exeter University and Rothamsted Research with input from Bayer have identified enzymes in bees that determine sensitivity to insecticides such as neonicotinoids. Published in Current Biology, the study identified a subfamily of these enzymes in bees that was responsible for the rapid breakdown of certain neonicotinoids, such as thiacloprid, making them virtually non-toxic to bees. Researchers are confident that this knowledge will enable companies to design further bee-friendly insecticides in an even more targeted way, using relatively simple methods (in vitro) at an early stage of a product’s development.

2. Can you model how a honey bee colony develops in different landscapes?

The Problem:

  • When it comes to trying to simulate something as complex as a bee hive, there seems to be too many variables – the weather, the landscape, the food, and a whole raft of stressors all interacting on the hives ability to flourish.

The Solution:  Another great collaboration between the University of Exeter and Rothamsted Research, this time with the University of Leipzig with input from Syngenta have developed the BEEHAVE  computer model to simulate the development of bee hives and the nectar and pollen foraging behavior of bees in different landscapes. The beauty of this model is that it is possible to include the impacts of Varroa mites, the diseases that they transmits, more general beekeeping practices, poor forage availability, together with the impacts of pesticides. Bayer and Syngenta are already using this model to understand how bee colonies respond to stress and how different combinations of stressors put the hive at risk. And it you understand the problem, you can start to work on the solutions.

3. Can you reduce the reinfection of bee hives with Varroa mites?

The Problem:

  • The Varroa  mite is a bee hive’s worst nightmare; these parasites feed on the blood (haemolymph) of the developing bee larvae, spread a whole raft of different viruses.
  •  As a diligent beekeeper, you have worked hard to eradicate or reduce the numbers of the mites in the hive, when bees from other hives where mites are still prevalent enter the hive and re-infect it with a fresh set of Varroa.

The Solution: The Bee gate – a new fitting, developed by Bayer Animal Health, to the entrance of the hive. As bees enter through the bee gate, they brush the surrounds of the gate picking up a small, but to the Varroa mite that might be clinging to the bee, lethal dose of an acaricide. A simple but effective method of helping beekeepers and bees protect the hive from their worst enemy.



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