“If bees disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live”

This oft-cited misquote, usually attributed to Einstein, has dubious origins (see Jeff Ollerton’s blog), but bees are undoubtedly important for humankind.

How is it possible that insects have such a big role for us? Travelling a maximum foraging distance of 10 km, and visiting up to 50-100 flowers per day, bees contribute to maintaining ecosystems. How? Wild and managed honeybees, bumblebees, and solitary bees are considered the main pollinators! With their work, they contribute to pollination of approximately 86% of crops and nearly 80% of all wild plant species in Europe. This service has a benefit for the economy: it’s been estimated that € 153 billion of global food production would be lost if pollinating insects disappeared.

Despite the essential role they play for humans, it seems that human activities are damaging the health of our little friends. Habitat loss and intensification of land use, climate change, exposure to agrochemicals, inadequate nutrition, increased incidence of pests and pathogens, and invasion of alien species are dramatically damaging bees.

For example, it’s been calculated that, between 1947 and 2005, the loss of colonies of honeybees was 25% in central Europe and 59% in USA. The proportion of this phenomenon is such huge that it’s known as ‘Global Pollinators Crisis’ (fig 1).

irene fig 1
Fig 1 Some of the interactions between the stressors that affect the bee health and that contribute to the decline of pollinators

But all is not lost! A network of countries (14 countries to be precise, fig 2) is working hard to find a solution. It is not an easy task though, because all the stressors interact with each other and this makes it hard to understand the effective impact of each component on the bee health.

irene fig 2
Fig 2 Members of the PoshBee project at the Annual General meeting in Murcia (Spain) in January 2019. The meeting focused on the presentation of the different work packages and was a good occasion to meet the new members and understand their roles in the project.

This project is called “PoshBee”, an acronym for “Pan-european assessment, monitoring, and mitigation Of Stressors on the Health of Bees”. Difficult name for a difficult task! This huge project involves countries all around Europe in order to understand which stressors are affecting bee health. The purpose of the project is to create an international network of countries that will cooperate in order to simultaneously investigate the impact of all of these factors on a range of bee species, and develop novel tools to help to reduce risks and avoid the negative impacts of these stressors on wild and managed bees. Some of these countries are going to collect data in the field including pollen and nectar from flowers, beebread, wax and royal jelly from the hives, to look for evidence of chemical exposure and nutritional content. We will also collect adult bees that have returned from foraging to examine what chemicals they may have encountered from the wider landscape. Adult bees, and their haemolymph, will be collected and examined for signs of diseases, and we will perform inspections of the honeybees hives to look for presence of disease and pests such as Chalk Brood, European Foul Brood and Varroa mites. Samples will be sent to several labs across Europe (in Belgium, France, Hungary, Italy, Poland) to be analysed and to create a pan-European dataset on exposure hazard.

The data we collect from Ireland will be combined with that of the rest of the network, involving other seven countries (Estonia, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and United Kingdom), and the results will help to develop crop management systems where pesticides can be used in a manner that lowers the risks to bees and other wildlife. Data will be collected in 16 different sites in 8 countries (half of them will be located in oil seed rape crops and the others in apple orchards). The apples represent a perennial crop, subjected to long-term management practices and the application of agrochemicals, while the oilseed rape is an annual crop so management and chemical use tends to be pulsed. We will also try to choose sites demonstrating a gradient of agricultural “intensification”, from low to high chemical and fertilizer inputs, and low to high agricultural use in the surrounding landscape.

We will use three species of bees as model species in our study: honeybees, bumble bees and solitary bees. The honeybees will be native Irish dark form Apis mellifera mellifera, the bumble bees the sub species of Bombus terrestris that occurs in Ireland and Britain, Bombus terrestris audax, and the solitary bees will be a species of orchard bee, Osmia bicornis (see Fig. 3).

irene fig 3a
Apis mellifera mellifera
irene fig 3c
Bombus terrestris audax
irene fig 3b
Osmia bicornis

Fig 3. Species of pollinator insects used in the study. Apis mellifera , Osmia bicornis, Bombus terrestris.

Floral abundance and richness will be assessed around the target sites, and landscape from the selected site analysed using GIS software. Wild and managed pollinator insects in the field margins will be monitored to give an indication of the ‘health’ of the pollinator communities occurring at each site.

All the data will be collected following common protocols.

Crucial for this job will be the contribution of the farmers and beekeepers in order to reconstruct the background of the fields, their history and their use during the past few years. Several universities and associations are involved in the project all around Europe. In Ireland, Trinity College Dublin is collaborating with FIBKA (The Federation of Irish Beekeepers Associations), and TEAGASC (Agriculture and Food Development Authority).

At the end of the study, models will be developed to assist authorities such as EFSA (European Food Safety Assessment) to assess combined threats to bees as part of risk assessment processes.

The PoshBee project is not the only project involved in safeguarding pollinators in Ireland. Other projects are analysing different aspects of bee health: two examples include the PROTECTS project that is investigating sustainable pesticide use, and the AIPP (All Ireland Pollinator Plan) that created, among other things, a network between farmers, local authorities, schools, gardeners and businesses with the aim of creating an Ireland where pollinators can survive and thrive.


Where are we now?

As you can imagine, it is very difficult to coordinate the work of many organisations and many countries, because you face two big problems. First of all, you have to be sure that the protocols are as clear and detailed as possible, since they have to be applied in the same way on a number of countries that are different in their typology of landscape, weather, number of people involved, and seasonality. The second big problem is coordinating two different ‘teams’ that have different requirements and problems to face. From one side there will be the team that has to collect the samples in the field, facing the short flowering period and the unpredictable weather conditions (that’s us!). The other team is composed by the countries responsible for the analytical work in the labs. One of the biggest strain for them is the amount of sample required: they need a big number of samples in order to conduct the analysis.

The most recent meeting of the PoshBee project aimed to face these challenges. It took place in Bologna (Italy) where CREA (Consiglio per la Ricerca in Agricoltura e l’Analisi dell’Economia Agraria) hosted all the people involved in the field work season (see Fig. 4).

irene fig 4
Fig 4. The team involved in the Work Package concerning the collection of the samples in the field. The group is composed of beekeepers, members of different organisations, researchers and PhD students.

The two-day workshop had the goal of producing the final versions of the protocols and test the procedures to be used in the sites (as well as tasting the amazing Bolognese food!) Every group that was charged with creating the protocols presented their work, receiving feedback and suggestions that have been use to compose the final version. The days were quite intense but their final result was great!

A large part of the workshop was allocated to testing and practicing the different methods that we will use. CREA made available its hives and bees for this purpose. We have to admit that putting into practice what we wrote has been more complicated than we thought! For example the evaluation of how many bees are on every frame (both sides) could seem a useless effort, but it’s very important to investigate the colony strength (see Fig. 5). We discovered we were initially not so good in evaluating the percentage in the hives, but luckily we can practise from home, using software called ColEval.

irene fig 5
Fig 5. Trying to calculate the percentage of the bees present on a frame. The frame with the grid (kept from the girl on the right could help in the counting since it subdivides the frame in 10 areas of the same size.

What about the detection of the mite that is been identified as one of the major factor responsible for colony losses worldwide: Varroa destructor? We plan to identify it on the bottom board of the hive between the debris – a hard task if your eyes are not used to picking out the tiny mites (see fig. 6).

irene fig 6
Fig 6. The arrow points an individual of Varroa destructor surrounded by debris.

The collection of nectar and haemolymph from bees were the things that created most difficulties for most of us novices! The nectar it has to be collected from the gut of the bees and it will be used in order to detect pesticides residues and the typology of plants they use to feed. In the haemolymph, the French team is looking for molecules that signal stress.

Let’s briefly describe these methods to let everybody know the huge effort people are willing to do in order to save our little stripy friends. Collecting nectar from the bee’s gut could also be described as ‘let the bee throw up in an Eppendorf squeezing its abdomen, avoiding killing it and being stung’. Concerning haemolymph collection, you have to isolate the head of the bee in a tube and collect the liquid with a micro-capillary tube between the second and the third tergites (see Fig. 7).

irene fig 7
Fig 7. Extraction of haemolymph from a female individual of Apis mellifera. The bee’s movement is prevented blocking the anterior part of the bee’s body in a plastic tube. The operator has to collect the haemolymph with a capillary tube that has to be located between the 2nd and the 3rd tergites of the abdomen. The lymph will draw up the tube because of the capillary force, and then has to be pumped into an Eppendorf – the operator has to blow inside the opposite side of the tube to make this happen.

The difficulties don’t stop here. Counting insects along a transect in order to monitor their biodiversity or identifying the plants in 1x1m square for assessing the forage resources at the sites, could be tricky as well. For example, what we consider a flower could be misunderstood by different teams of fieldworkers: if we think about one daisy, we are actually thinking about hundreds of little flowers that are grouped together on a capitulum (see Fig. 8 ).

irene fig 8
Fig. 8 The Bellis perennis flower is an example of what sometimes the thing we consider a flower is otherwise a group of different small flowers.

These are only few examples of all the analysis that we are going to do in the field. I’m not going to describe them in the details because there are about 40 protocols (it’s going to be a hard season of work, but someone has to do that)! Thus if you want keeping updated on our adventures, visit the PoshBee website or follow the Twitter account @poshbee_eu.

So hang in there bees, we are starting working for you! Be(e)tter late than never!


About the Author:

Irene Bottero is a PhD student working with Prof Jane Stout and Dr Simon Hodge in Botany, School of Natural Sciences, Trinity College Dublin. Follow her on Twitter @irene_bottero.

The PoshBee project receives funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 773921.


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