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Scientists find key factor in decline of bees
THEY used to be a familiar sight of summer but the alarming decline in the honeybee population could actually have a major impact on global food supplies.
Now Southampton scientists believe they have found a key factor in the drastic reduction of numbers worldwide after they carried out a study into how diesel exhaust fumes can affect their ability to collect flower nectar.
Previous studies have shown that far from randomly hopping from flower to flower, bees use their tongues to detect the smell of the blooms that they know will yield the most nectar.
The team led by Dr Tracey Newman and Prof Guy Poppy, took scent from an oil rapeseed plant and exposed it to diesel fumes and found that in doing so the actual smell of the flower changed as it had been chemically altered.
When they exposed this new scent to the bees under laboratory conditions they were unable to detect the flower and thus were unable to collect the nectar in the same efficient way.
Neuroscientist Dr Newman said: “We are not saying that this is the only reason for the decline in bee numbers but certainly if this study is replicated in the real world it could be a key component.”
The £175,000 research, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, has taken almost three years to complete and will now be replicated in an outdoor environment to see if the results are repeated.
It is hoped the outcome will lead to a better understanding of how to halt the decline of bees by better positioning of hives and less exposure to chemicals.
It could also lead to a rethink on recent plans to re-home bees in hedgerow next to roads in an effort to boost numbers as the team believe the same effects would happen with petrol fumes.
The study is also looking into how pollutants also affect the general health of the bee which involves the study of the bee brain over time.
Professor Poppy, an ecologist at the University, added: “Honeybee pollination can significantly increase the yield of crops and they are vital to the world's economy - £430 million a year to the UK alone.
“However to forage effectively they need to be able to learn and recognize the plants. If that familiar smell is no longer there they are simply unable to find the right plant and so their ability to collect the same amount of nectar takes longer or is much reduced.”
Bee factfile • There are different types of honey bee including the queen bee, the drone who fertilises the queen bee and the worker bees.
• Each type have different life expectancies. The queen bee, who remains in the hive and lays eggs during the summer months can live up to five years. While workers can only live for up to 40 days.
• Honey bees live in colonies, where each has a job to do. The queen lays the eggs and the workers build the honeycomb and collect the food.
• The honey bees wings beat 11,400 times per minute whilst in flight, and this is what creates the buzzing noise we hear.
• There are about 24 bumblebee species in Britain but only about 12 are commonly seen in gardens.
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