Bee study hopes to get to bottom of declining numbers

Bee study hopes to get to bottom of declining numbers

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A new study of British bumblebees will hopefully help scientists to understand precisely why the insects' numbers have been declining - and what can be done to reverse this trend.

Dr Mark O'Neill from Newcastle-based technology firm Tumbling Dice is leading a team that has developed tiny tracking devices that can be fitted to the backs of bees in order to track their movements as they go from hive to flowers and beyond.

The radio frequency identification tags are less than two inches long and are fitted onto bees' backs like miniature backpacks. In order to fit them, researchers temporarily cool the insects down - a process that doesn't harm them - to reduce their activity levels.

Each device has a range of 2.5 metres, much further than previous tracking technologies that could not work at such a large range from the nest. The trackers are also light enough not to impair the bees' movements and ensure they act just as they would normally.

Lead researcher Dr Sarah Barlow said: "This new technology will open up possibilities for scientists to track bees in the landscape. This piece of the puzzle of bee behaviour is absolutely vital if we are to understand better why our bees are struggling and how we can reverse their decline."

Many of Britain's bumblebee species are in decline and this has been widely attributed to the growing use of chemicals in modern farming.

Indeed, a recent study at Plymouth University published in the Journal of Insect Conservation found that bees now seem to prefer visiting flowers on the road-facing side of hedgerows than those alongside hedges within field boundaries.

Examination of 30 sites in Devon and Cornwall suggested this could be because crop spraying on the insides of fields has a negative impact on bees' food sources.

Lead author Dr Mick Hanley said farmers might consider leaving a larger boundary between their crops and the hedgerows.

Find out more about how you can help bumblebees in your own green space in the helpful book Gardening for Butterflies, Bees and Other Beneficial Insects, which is available from our website alongside a host of plants to attract pollinators.