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Nine projects funded in £10 million Insect Pollinators Initiative

22 June 2010

The Insect Pollinators Initiative has announced £10 million of funding for nine projects investigating the decline of honeybees and other pollinating insects in recent years. These projects will explore the causes and consequences of threats to these insect populations.

The announcement coincides with National Insect Week, and the aim of the Initiative is to inform mitigation strategies that will ensure that the pollination of agricultural and horticultural crops is protected and biodiversity in natural ecosystems is maintained.

Insects pollinate around a third of the agricultural crops grown globally and the total loss of insect pollinators could cost up to £440 million per year in the UK (about 13 per cent of the UK's income from farming). The causes of pollinator declines are likely to be complex and involve interactions between the insects, the environment, and pests and diseases.

"To tackle a complex problem like the decline of pollinating insects, where there are a number of potential causes, requires wide-ranging research," says Professor Andrew Watkinson, Director of the Living with Environmental Change programme, which oversees the Insect Pollinators Initiative.

"That is why it is so important that a number of funding organisations have come together in this initiative to provide the essential breadth and critical mass of research that would not be possible if the individual funders worked in isolation. It has also allowed us to bring in new skills in gene sequencing and epidemiological modelling with the expertise that already exists in the pollinator research community."

The funded projects look at different aspects of the decline of insect pollinators. Some focus on specific species and/or diseases, while others look more broadly at factors affecting the health and survival of some or all pollinating insects. The initiative brings together researchers from many disciplines including ecology, molecular biology, mathematics and computing.

Dr Robert Paxton from Queen's University Belfast, is among those funded through the initiative. His project will look at the impact of emergent diseases on major UK insect pollinators and how we might mitigate against them.

The project will combine the expertise of five leading laboratories across the UK and the EU in a three-year project, focusing on diseases caused by Deformed Wing Virus and a fungus-like microorganism called Nosema ceranae. These are among the most serious diseases that affect honeybees and have recently been found to infect some bumblebees as well. Using laboratory and field experiments, including radar tracking of individual flying bees, researchers will investigate the direct impact of both diseases on honeybees and bumblebees.

The team will also test two new methods to control the microorganisms that cause such diseases based on probiotic bacteria and RNA interference technology. New ways of controlling bee diseases will be of immediate benefit to the pollinator industry and hobby beekeepers in ensuring sustainable pollination in the UK.

Elsewhere, Dr Chris Connolly from the University of Dundee will lead a project looking at how the learning capacity and performance of bees is affected by exposure to industrial chemicals, such as pesticides.

Many insecticides work by interfering with information flow in the brains of insects - either increasing or decreasing their brain activity. Dr Connolly and colleagues will look at whether chronic exposure to chemicals used to control mites, combined with levels of agricultural pesticides that are not lethal but could be damaging, are affecting foraging, navigation and communication in honeybees and bumblebees.

The researchers will assess the bees' performance using radio tagging of individual bees and assessment of specific learning tasks. They will also study the brain cells of bees in the laboratory to monitor the effects of pesticides and to understand the molecular basis of learning and memory in bees. The researchers will attempt to produce the first ever honeybee cell line to facilitate future pesticide screening.

"The decline in the populations of bees and other pollinators could have a devastating effect on our environment, and this will almost certainly have a serious impact on our health and wellbeing," says Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust.

"Understanding what is causing this decline is an urgent challenge facing the scientific community and it is important we work across disciplines to find ways that it can be reversed."

The Insect Pollinators Initiative is a joint initiative from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Natural Environment Research Council, the Scottish Government and the Wellcome Trust. It is funded under the auspices of the Living With Environmental Change programme.

The full list of projects funded:

  • Sustainable pollination services for UK crops
    Dr Koos Biesmeijer, University of Leeds
  • Modelling systems for managing bee disease: the epidemiology of European Foulbrood
    Dr Giles Budge, Food and Environment Research Agency
  • Investigating the impact of habitat structure on queen and worker bumblebees in the field
    Dr Claire Carvell, NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology
  • An investigation into the synergistic impact of sublethal exposure to industrial chemicals on the learning capacity and performance of bees
    Dr Chris Connolly, University of Dundee
  • Linking agriculture and land use change to pollinator populations
    Professor Bill Kunin, University of Leeds
  • Urban pollinators: their ecology and conservation
    Professor Jane Memmott, University of Bristol
  • Impact and mitigation of emergent diseases on major UK insect pollinators
    Dr Robert Paxton, Queen's University Belfast
  • Unravelling the impact of the mite Varroa destructor on the interaction between the honeybee and its viruses
    Dr Eugene Ryabov, University of Warwick
  • Can bees meet their nutritional needs in the current UK landscape?
    Dr Geraldine Wright, Newcastle University

Image: The National Bee Unit at the Food and Environment Research Agency has a network of inspectors who monitor the health of honeybee colonies across England and Wales. Credit: Giles Budge, The Food and Environment Research Agency

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