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Bees fitted with tiny ID tags for study

Bees are being fitted with tiny radio ID tags to monitor their movements as part of research into whether pesticides could be giving the insects brain disorders, scientists said today.

The study is examining concerns that pesticides could be damaging bees' abilities to gather food, navigate and even perform their famous "waggle dance" through which they tell other bees where nectar can be found.

The research is part of a raft of studies which will look at declines in pollinators including bees, hoverflies, butterflies and moths, amid fears over the impact of their falling numbers.

Experts said three of the UK's 25 bumblebee species had gone extinct, while half had suffered declines of up to 70%.

Three quarters of butterfly species were declining, while there was little "robust science" on what was happening to other insect pollinators such as hoverflies, the researchers said.

It is estimated insect pollinators contribute £440 million to the UK economy through their role in fertilising crops, with produce such as strawberries dependent on being properly pollinated by insects to produce good-quality fruit.

Other research being funded as part of the £10 million initiative include a study into pollinators in cities, the impacts of disease on pollinating insects and the effects of modern agriculture on bees.

Research is also being conducted into whether the decline in wildflowers such as red clover and bird's foot trefoil is the result of falling numbers of insects to pollinate them.

Professor Andrew Watkinson, director of the Living with Environmental Change programme under which the projects are being funded, said: "We've seen well-documented changes in our birds, our flowers and also in some of our insects.

"Now there is growing concern insect pollinators are in decline."

He said declining numbers of honeybees, bumblebee species, hoverflies and butterflies posed a problem not just for wildlife but for the economy.

He said there was "no single factor" that could explain the declines, but a whole range of potential issues ranging from agricultural practices to the use of pesticides.

Dr Chris Connolly, of the University of Dundee, who is leading research into the damage chemicals could be doing to pollinators, said it was unlikely a single pesticide was having a direct impact on bees.

But a combination of chemicals could be affecting their nervous systems and damaging their ability to learn, communicate, navigate and forage.

His research will study the impacts of combinations of chemicals from the cellular level up to seeing how bees manage learning and behaviour tasks and examining the performance of whole hives.

The study will include fitting tiny radio frequency ID tags on bees which will act like "barcodes at the supermarket", recording when they come in and out of the nest, while the insects will also be weighed to see how successful they are at bringing back food.

Working with the Scottish Beekeepers Association, the researchers will also carry out a survey of how hives perform and comparing the results to local conditions including temperature and rainfall and to the pesticides being used in the surrounding area.

He said: "Bees have to be able to identify which flowers are the best for nectar, and they learn it by social communication."

He said they also had to be able to navigate complex flowers, while finding their way back to the nest was also crucial.

If their learning systems were being affected by the chemicals it could damage their ability to perform these important tasks.

And he said that if a bee's neurological functions were damaged it could mean that when it came back to the hive to perform the waggle dance, it may not be able to do it appropriately or in the right part of the hive, while other bees may be unable to interpret it.

Another study, led by Professor Jane Memmott of the University of Bristol, will compare cities, farms and nature reserves to identify hotspots for pollinators - and then look at which urban areas such as gardens and wasteland are good for the insects.

It will also add flower mixes high in nectar and pollen to selected habitats in Bristol, Edinburgh, Leeds and Reading to test whether the extra food provision boosts numbers of pollinators.