December 12 2013 Latest news:
Friday, August 16, 2013
Andrew Bourke, a behavioural ecologist and evolutionary biologist based at the University of East Anglia, is interested in two things – why animals evolve social behaviour, for which he studies ants and bees, and the conservation of the wild bee.
“If you look inside an insect colony it is a very harmonious unit. There is a queen and workers and they all work together so in many respects,” said Prof Bourke.
“On the other hand, if you watch closely you see there are also tensions. In particular, some of the workers are not completely sterile and can lay their own eggs and then the queen tries to stop them and squabbles start. We are interested in trying to understand what determines the balance between the co-operative side and the conflicting side. We see it as a very general problem in biology because many living things live in animal societies and, after all, we humans live in families and in larger groupings, in towns and cities etc and this general problem of how to balance co-operation and conflict is always there.
“What we do is keep captive bee colonies. We put individual numbers on the back of bees so we can track certain ones over the lifetime of the colony.”
While numbering bees might seem like an impossible task, a technique is used which has been developed by honeybee keepers using tiny plastic discs with numbers on, which are stuck on with glue.
“There is a well developed body of ideas that tries to explain how social behaviour should evolve, according to things like the genetic structure of the colony. There are some concrete ideas we can test.”
Prof Bourke said that in Britain we have about 25 species of bumble bee which are all important in pollination.
“Of our 25 bumble bee species, a third are reckoned to have declined quite steeply over the past 100 years, so there is quite a big problem. The consensus is that this is mainly due to changes in farming practices, but on top of that things like pesticides and parasites might have a role and are adding to changes taking place. Also, we don’t really know what effect climate change will have because it hasn’t been going on for long enough. The expectation is that it will change something, but whether that’s for better or worse it’s hard to say – that’s why it’s worth studying.”
The government has funded the Insect Pollinators Initiative, which is a nationwide scheme and funds a number of projects on wild bees and honey bees, including some of Prof Bourke’s work.
“On the conservation side, I am involved in a number of projects. Here at UEA, we, that’s myself and a PhD student who has been working with me, have been looking at the effects of higher temperatures on the ageing and development of bee colonies. With climate change, mean temperature is expected to rise and we don’t really have a good idea of how that might affect the colony cycles of bees.
“There is also a new kind of bumblebee which has naturally colonised the UK called the tree bumblebee. This bee has spread quite rapidly and we are interested in the ecological factors underpinning that spread.
“The third strand on the conservation side is with external collaborators at the centre for ecology and hydrology. We have been trying to evaluate and look at ways to improve things, called agri-environment schemes, for pollinators. The government lets farmers plant wild flower strips along the side of their fields to attract pollinators and enhance their populations, so we have been involved in a long-term study which aims to see how effective these are and how they can be improved.”