Matthew Pound has just returned from a field study in Chillingham, helping out a colleague from Newcastle University on a project, when we speak. Spending time in the countryside is not unusual for the Northumbria University academic, who is a leading expert in pollen analysis – and it’s something he’ll be doing more of this summer as he undertakes a project that aims to uncover more information about one of our most overlooked (but most important) insects: bees.
For more than a decade, we’ve been bombarded with worrying headlines about the collapse of vast colonies of bees. In the mid-2000s, American beekeepers noticed that their bees were mysteriously dying, and the intervening years have been spent trying to understand why. Blame has been laid at the door of a number of issues: mites that kill the bees, the use of neonicotinoids (a type of insecticide), the increasing paving over of green space and the general decline in numbers of the types of plants that attract bumblebees. (Industrial farming, which prioritises the use of a single, monocultural cash crop rather than a diverse range of food sources, has meant that, of the 97 food plants that attract bumblebees, three-quarters have been in decline since the 1930s.)
The question of colony collapse, where entire hives of bees die out, still isn’t fully answered – though thankfully, the number and health of hives seem to have improved slightly in the last decade – but the increasing awareness about the plight of bees has driven a realisation that they need to be better understood.
Most of us think of them either as an insect whose buzzing around flowers is an integral part of summer, or are scared of their sting. But bees are so much more. Bees are crucial to the circle of life: according to the United Nations, almost all of the crop species which account for 90 percent of the food we eat is pollinated by bees. Without them, the crops won’t grow, and our food chain, then our population, will die out.
Which is partly why Matthew Pound has planned his study of bee populations in the city and countryside around the North East. ‘That was always my driver for getting into this work,’ he explains. It’s also helping to explain whether an unintended consequence of the increased awareness of colony collapse – larger numbers of amateur beekeepers setting up hives – is actually doing more harm than good.
‘We have to ask, are honeybees causing a decline in many of our native wild bees?’ says Matthew. ‘Are they outcompeting them for food?’
The British Beekeepers’ Association reports that beekeeping has seen a resurgence in popularity. In the past decade, the number of people registering with the group as having hives has trebled from 8,000 to 24,000 – and many of them are in urban areas. ‘I think that’s partly driven by the fact that people are concerned about the decline in pollinators in our environment,’ explains Matthew. ‘By looking after honeybees, you’re doing your bit for the environment.’
However, by doing so we may in fact be harming the wider bee population: because of a lack of plants to pollinate in the city where many new honeybee colonies are kept, those bees are migrating to the countryside and taking vital pollen from the plants and flowers that our more endangered wild bees usually rely on. ‘Honeybees are generalists,’ says Matthew. ‘They’ll take a little bit from most flowers if they can.’
Though he’s keen not to discourage anyone from keeping bees – ‘it’s wonderful to have more beekeepers in the country,’ he says – ‘at the same time we do need to be looking at the bigger picture. We need to think about how we can look after the environment for the next 100 or 200 years. What can we do to keep our biodiversity in this country?’
Matthew’s research will explore bee movements over the course of the summer. ‘You’ve got this huge flowering season with lots of different plants that offer lots of different pollinating opportunities,’ he explains.
The whole project was triggered by Matthew’s work with a Ponteland-based beekeeper, who had anecdotally told him about the way in which his honey changes over the course of the summer. In the early season, from May to the end of June, the honey his bees produce is dominated by oil seed rape. ‘It makes sense,’ Matthew explains. ‘It’s a field full of yellow flowers. Bees absolutely love it; it’s bee heaven.’
But once June has passed, the honey changes. ‘It becomes more and more diverse because the bees are looking around different gardens, trying to find things they can feed on,’ says Matthew. At the end of the season, bees tend to travel to vegetable crops and wildflower meadows to find their pollen.
‘One of my ideas is that bees could be leaving the cities in the spring and going out to the oil seed rape crop and using that,’ says Matthew. ‘Bees will travel about six miles from their hive for food. But after that, my hypothesis is that they are coming back in and using people’s gardens and allotments, wildflower meadows planted by the council and local groups, for their late-season honey production.’
The questions Matthew is posing are simple ones: is it better to be a beekeeper in the city or the countryside? And what impact does that have on bee populations more generally?
At present around 10 beekeepers from across the region have signed up to the project, though more are joining all the time. They’re based in Ponteland and Prudhoe, Hexham and 1,000 feet up in the Pennines. There are inner city beekeepers in Longbenton, Gateshead and Gosforth. They’ll be helped by a team of 30 students at the university under the oversight of Matthew and colleague Rinke Vinkenoog, who will be conducting pollinator surveys and honey analysis.
The pollinator surveys will involve analysing the movement of bees in a radius of a few hundred metres around a colony, watching where the insects travel and which flowers and plants they land on. ‘We’ll aggregate all this data through the season and work out which plants are served by which pollinators, and how this changes,’ Matthew explains.
The honey analysis will see small samples taken at regular intervals. Broken down by enzymes in a laboratory, which allows the researchers to concentrate the pollen, it can then be analysed to see which plant it has come from. ‘Using all that data, together with the pollinator survey, we get a big picture of where pollinators have been feeding, and what they’ve been feeding on through the entire summer in Newcastle and the Tyne Valley.’
That will be a boon to the beekeeping community. ‘We want to be able to say this is what you should plant to support honeybees or bumblebees,’ says Matthew. It’ll also have a larger environmental impact. ‘We’re at a turning point, I think. There’s a public awareness about biodiversity, the state of our wildlife and how fragile the planet is,’ he says. ‘Anything where we can say: “This is a good idea, let’s give it a try”, people will be happy to try and help.’
To find out more information about the project, visit www.northumbria.ac.uk