Rothamsted Starts Bee Research Again

From Bee Craft: November 2009

Juliet Osborne, PhD, and Judith Pell, PhD

Some more good news about funding for honey bee research

Untitled(3)-1WE ARE pleased to tell you that the Rothamsted bee research team has been awarded £1 million to study honey bee disease and foraging behaviour, in collaboration with Warwick University. This project, entitled Honeybee Population Dynamics: Integrating the effects of factors within the hive and in the landscape, is jointly funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Syngenta.

UK government figures suggest bee numbers have fallen by 10-15% over the Past two years; the British Beekeepers’ Association (BBKA) quotes a figure nearer 30% for 2008. Since the declines were first reported a number of factors have been suggested. Most scientists now believe that a complex of interacting factors is the most likely cause.


Rothamsted Research has an active programme of research on honey bees, bumblebees and other insect pollinators, led by Juliet Osborne. In line with availability of research funding, we have focused in recent years on studying their behaviour and effectiveness as pollinators. This new three-year project will boost the team with the appointment of two new researchers. It will enable us to start studying bee diseases again and we will use a combination of mathematical modelling and experiments to understand the most important factors affecting colony survival.

We will take a novel approach to look at how nutrition is related to a colony’s ability to resist disease and conversely how the health status of a colony influences the bees’ effectiveness at foraging. We also have a BBSRC-funded PhD student who is studying the effects of disease on honey bee learning behaviour.

Bees living on agricultural landscapes have a lot to deal with! They must respond to sudden changes in availability of food – pollen and nectar – while dealing with a variety of diseases, parasites and other stresses. This project will provide us with a unique insight into how disease and food supply affect the survival of bees in farmed landscapes.

The team will use a combination of field work and computer modelling to look at how the bees’ behaviour outside the hive, while looking for food, interacts with what is affecting bees in the hive – factors that have historically been studied separately. The ultimate aim of the project is to build a model that will allow us to understand how bees may respond to diseases in a changing agricultural landscape.


To support the bee research, we continue to maintain around 25-30 colonies of honey bees at Rothamsted. We have a brand new research laboratory built specifically for studying bees and other insects and for housing our harmonic radar tracking system.


Rothamsted is hosting an Open Weekend on 22-23 May 2010, details of which will be posted on the Institute’s website: As the new project develops, we look forward to sharing our results with you. We are grateful for the support we have received from beekeepers which has galvanised funding bodies (governmental, charitable and industrial) into making a substantial financial contribution to new projects studying UK bee populations and their survival.


As funders, the research councils and Syngenta are stepping up to the plate in the fight against declining honey bee populations. In addition to this project, Syngenta have also launched Operation Pollinator, a 5-year €1 million programme in seven European countries (and the USA) to boost pollinating insects by providing wildflower strips.

Dr Osborne’s project is one of four honey bee-related projects funded by the research councils in recent months, with a total investment of £2.1 million. For example, BBSRC is also funding a project led by Professor Ian Jones at Reading University, who is researching Israel Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV), which is associated with colony collapse disorder and exacerbated by varroa mite infection. NERC is funding two projects: Dr William Hughes of the University of Leeds is investigating the effects of genetic diversity on transmission and evolution of infection of honey bees by the fungal parasite, chalk brood, and Professor Mike Boots of the University of Sheffield is looking at the evolution of virulence in viral diseases that infect honey bees via varroa mites.


BBSRC also manages the Insect Pollinators Initiative – a £10 million joint funding source under the Living with Environmental Change (LWEC) partnership. This is a joint initiative from BBSRC, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the NERC, the Wellcome Trust and the Scottish Government.

Projects funded under the initiative are due to be announced in July 2010.

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