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Citizen science project aims to reveal secret life of bees

PUBLISHED: 08:30 30 April 2020 | UPDATED: 09:11 30 April 2020

Pollinators such as bees play an essential role in biodiversity and food security   Picture: Saviour Bees

Pollinators such as bees play an essential role in biodiversity and food security Picture: Saviour Bees

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In these unprecedented times, we are all spending much more time at home and in our gardens. And, now that spring has well and truly arrived, it’s the perfect time to get reacquainted with one of our country’s busiest workers – the bee.

A new citizen science project called Saviour Bees aims to uncover the secret lives of bees by asking for the public'’s participation to find out how they are using bee hotels   Picture: Saviour BeesA new citizen science project called Saviour Bees aims to uncover the secret lives of bees by asking for the public'’s participation to find out how they are using bee hotels Picture: Saviour Bees

Bee populations are on the decline and currently face their own crisis. This is due in large part to a loss of habitat, as towns and cities expand into greenbelt land, and a loss of wildflowers. Bees, along with other pollinators, are vitally important to our way of life because they pollinate the fruit and vegetables that we buy.

People are doing what they can to help by planting wildflower seeds or placing bee hotels in their gardens. And, it’s this latter trend that has caught the attention of an organisation called Saviour Bees that has joined forces with the Earlham Institute at Norwich Research Park to launch a UK-wide citizen science project.

The aim of the project is to uncover the secret lives of bees by asking for the public’s participation to find out how they are using bee hotels. The suspicion is that there is a vast difference in the quality of bee hotels on sale and a fair amount of misinformation on how to use them.

In this country, millions of bee hotels have been sold in recent years. You can buy them pretty much anywhere – in supermarkets, hardware stores and, of course, online. However, until now, there haven’t been any standards published that manufacturers need to adhere to in terms of design and no clear guidelines on how to use them effectively.

Dan Harris and Dr Pete Bickerton, Earlham Institute (as Barney Bee) promoting Savour Bees at the Norwich Science Festival   Picture: Saviour BeesDan Harris and Dr Pete Bickerton, Earlham Institute (as Barney Bee) promoting Savour Bees at the Norwich Science Festival Picture: Saviour Bees

The project, which is the brainchild of Dan Harris, firstly needs to get as many people who own a bee hotel as possible to complete a simple five-minute survey which will establish a clear national picture of how people are using their bee hotels.

“We launched the survey just before Easter and have already had hundreds of responses,” said Dan. “With most of us having more time to spend in our gardens during the COVID-19 lockdown, it is a perfect opportunity to do something constructive for an insect that is vital to the environment we live in.

“I would encourage anyone who has a garden to join the project and do something positive for our bees. We hope the findings will provide us with a platform to develop some clear guidance for people who want to buy and use a good-quality bee hotel.”

The Earlham Institute has been working with bees for a number of years. Originally, it was going to use the findings of the Saviour Bees survey as part its Bee Trail project that it was showcasing at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition in July. This event has been postponed due to the ongoing coronavirus situation, but the plan is to take the Bee Trail forward regardless.

A new citizen science project called Saviour Bees aims to uncover the secret lives of bees by asking for the public’'s participation to find out how they are using bee hotels   Picture: Saviour BeesA new citizen science project called Saviour Bees aims to uncover the secret lives of bees by asking for the public’'s participation to find out how they are using bee hotels Picture: Saviour Bees

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The Bee Trail itself brings to life real research that scientists at the Earlham Institute are undertaking in collaboration with Norwich Research Park partner the University of East Anglia (UEA), along with the University of Cambridge and the Natural History Museum (NHM). Bees have been tracked to find out the patterns of their movement from plant to plant over time and in different parts of the country.

This has been achieved by collecting pollen from bees and sequencing the DNA of that pollen to find out what plant species bees have been visiting. This method will enable scientists at the Earlham Institute to identify which plants different species of bees prefer at different times of the year and in different locations nationwide.

In turn it will help them to recommend good combinations of plants that work alongside the needs of agriculture, which relies strongly on the pollination of bees.

The Bee Trail helps members of the public to better understand this work. It combines an innovative LEGO DNA sequencer, developed by Earlham Institute researchers, with an interactive and explorative activity using LEGO and stickers, rather than pollen grains and DNA.

Dr Pete Bickerton, scientific communications and outreach manager at Earlham Institute, said: “Amateur scientists have played a key role in helping us to understand bees. The citizen science project is a powerful tool to help us to help bees, as it can be done pretty easily by recruiting members of the public on a large scale. This type of project aligns well with other science that Earlham Institute is doing. It’ll help us to promote the essential role of pollinators for biodiversity and for food security.”

To take part in the project you can complete a short five-minute survey at saviourbees.co.uk/citizenscience

Three facts you need to know about bees

1 Bees contribute about £700m to the UK economy by pollinating the fruit and vegetables that we eventually buy.

2 Honey bees have to gather nectar from two million flowers to make one pound of honey.

3 Of the 250 species of bee found in Britain, a third of them are under threat of extinction.


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