How grass pea and bees can help improve the sustainability of our planet

A bee entering a bee hotel

A survey on bee hotels is hoping to uncover information that will lead to improved guidance on the best materials and locations to increase effectiveness at attracting more bees - Credit: Bee Saviour Behaviour

With COP26 being held later this year in Glasgow, local researchers are engaged in important work that aims to help improve the sustainability of the planet in the areas of food, health and climate change. Here are two examples of the world-leading science that is being carried out at Norwich Research Park to address some of the critical issues we face. 

A child holding a bee hotel made from a mug and bamboo sticks

There are lots of different types of bee hotel, but a new survey by researchers from the Earlham Institute is hoping to uncover the most effective designs - Credit: Bee Saviour Behaviour

New bee hotel survey to help save the UK’s busy pollinators 

Researchers from the Earlham Institute at Norwich Research Park have teamed up with a Norwich community-based project, Bee Saviour Behaviour, to launch the first ever UK-wide citizen science survey on bee hotels.  

It will ask the public how they build, place and maintain their bee hotels in an effort to help the UK’s bee population. The project is being supported by the Royal Society’s Summer Science 2021 event. 

The total area of UK gardens adds up to more land than the country’s nature reserves and national parks combined, giving the public the power to make a positive change.  

The simple, five-minute survey aims to better understand how bee hotels in gardens and parks are currently used and to improve guidance and to improve their effectiveness at attracting more bees, including advice on the best building materials and locations. 

“The biggest challenge facing UK bees is the impact humans have on the environment,” said Dan Harris, founder of Bee Saviour Behaviour. “Specifically, we are referring to the disappearance of habitat and the introduction of harmful chemicals into the green spaces that bees occupy. The destruction of habitat isn’t all about concrete and urban landscapes. The way humans farm, with acres of one crop, has a massive impact on bee populations and the biodiversity of these rural areas.” 

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Bee hotels are a proven way of creating nesting habitats for solitary bees in urban environments, but many are merely decorative and few have the durability to make a lasting impact.  

Findings from a pilot study carried out two years ago suggest that a third of bee hotels in the UK are not in good working condition due to them being poorly installed or ill-designed. Bee hotels are often misconstrued as a garden or open-space feature, with little understanding of how they work or the positive impact they can have on bee populations.  

The Earlham Institute and Bee Saviour Behaviour will analyse and evaluate the survey findings and then create guidance to help both the public to improve their use of bee hotels.  

Dr Will Nash, Postdoctoral Scientist at the Earlham Institute, said: “Lots of the science we do at the Earlham Institute involves analysing data to understand more about the natural world. By getting UK citizens involved in this project, it will deliver the crucial data about bee hotels that will enable us to influence their use and improve the situation for our national bee population.” 

Visit the Bee Saviour Behaviour website to take part in the bee hotel survey at https://saviourbees.co.uk/citizenscience/ 

DrPeter Emmrich with some grass pea, an 'orphan crop’ that is highly tolerant to both drought and flooding

Dr Peter Emmrich with some grass pea, an 'orphan crop’ that is highly tolerant to both drought and flooding - Credit: Peter Emmrich

Norwich institute works on building more sustainable food supplies 

The Norwich Institute for Sustainable Development was only established at Norwich Research Park at the turn of the year but it’s already making great progress in researching new ways to develop more sustainable farming, especially in regions of the world and the UK where harsh or extreme climate or soil conditions exist. 

A good example of this is the work being done by Dr Peter Emmrich and Dr Natasha Grist. Their research is set to help scientists and farmers develop better agricultural practices and improve nutrition for a growing world population. 

Dr Emmrich’s research into grass pea encapsulates the potential there is for significant breakthroughs in the way we look at crops. He explains: “Grass pea (Lathyrus sativus) is an ancient ‘orphan crop’ that is highly tolerant to both drought and flooding. Eating more legumes, which are high in protein and fibre, is a good way of lessening our impact on the climate because it reduces our need for artificial fertiliser and can help to reduce richer countries’ consumption of meat. 

“Climate change means droughts and flooding are going to become more common which can cause crop failures. Developing more resilient crops is one way to address that. 

“Grass pea hasn’t really had the attention it deserves because it produces a potentially dangerous natural toxin. If the local diet is heavily reliant on grass pea due to the scarcity of food, this can paralyse the legs of people consuming it.  

“At the John Innes Centre, we’ve been trying to understand how the plant makes this toxin so that we can breed varieties without it. But crop science alone can only do so much, so through the new institute we are now studying how farmers and consumers in Ethiopia cultivate and eat grass pea and what improvements to the crop they want to see.” 

This is just one of the ways in which researchers at Norwich Research Park are aiming to play an important role in supporting the global population address the major challenges it faces. 

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