Saving Hives

Saving Hives

We all know that bee populations are in decline, and biologists at UEA are trying to understand why. Prof Douglas Yu has developed an ingenious new method to track bee populations by directly reading the DNA from ‘soups’ of bees, so that researchers can identify and count species quickly and reliably.

The large decline in bee populations is well documented, but biologists, ecologists and conservationists don’t yet fully understand why it’s happening or how it can be reversed.

Since bees are crucial to pollinating plants and crops, it’s vital that they continue to thrive and play their major role in maintaining biodiversity. Without bees, food production and wild plant diversity could be dangerously hampered.

A complex mix of climate change, disease and human activity is certainly at the heart of the problem, but it will require a monumental effort to find real solutions. Thankfully, organisations like the UK’s National Pollinator Strategy plan huge bee-monitoring networks to try and understand what’s happening by gathering data about bee numbers across the UK.

UEA’s expertise in areas like Ecology and Genetics are being put to work on these enormous challenges and, in collaboration with Conservation Grade, the University of Reading, the Kunming Institute of Zoology, and the China National GeneBank at BGI-Shenzhen in China, they’ve developed a fascinating innovation that could have extraordinary consequences.

The bee-monitoring databases have traditionally required manual pinning and microscope identification of individual bees – a laborious and inaccurate process – but the team (led by UEA’s Prof Douglas Yu) has found that making a bee ‘soup’ can give a much more accurate picture.

Researchers collect samples of bees, crush them up, and run the resulting ‘soup’ through a DNA sequencer. As Prof Yu explains: “The number of bees that end up in one of my soups is absolutely tiny compared with the populations being studied [and] a computer programme is consistent in its identifications.

“Large-scale bee monitoring programmes would really benefit from this type of DNA sequencing. The method can easily be scaled up to track more species, like the 1300 or so total pollinating insects in the UK.

“We can find out where species diversity or abundance is highest – for example in the countryside or in city parks– and how species diversity is affected by farming methods – for example, to see if habitat set-asides support more bees. We can eventually also interrogate the soups for pests and diseases.

“Species biodiversity at any given site can be revealed in a single drop of soup. It’s a technique that shaves weeks, months, years off traditional ecological methods, saves money and spares the need for tons of taxonomic expertise.

“We’re trying to speed up ecological investigation on a monumental scale.”



The Expert

Professor Douglas Yu

Professor of Ecology
School of Biological Sciences
Personal website Google Scholar website ResearchGate