An imposing, white-painted beehive stood in the middle of the room. Emblazoned across the front in large black letters was one word – POLICE.
The police keep bees?
On a nearby wall was a screen showing a short documentary film: “Policing Genes” by Thomas Thwaites. The film featured police beekeeper, Mark Machan, from the Metropolitan Police Genetic Surveillance Unit. Machan manages 43 beehives around south London and part of Kent. He collects pollen from bees returning to their hives. The pollen is analysed to see if people are growing GM crops and infringing intellectual property; also whether they are cultivating illicit substances. Machan takes advantage of the bees’ “waggle dance” to locate the source of the pollen. Bees returning to the hive perform this dance to communicate the location of rich forage to their nest mates. Machan analyses these waggle dances to infer the location so that officers can be sent to suburban gardens growing unlicensed GM plants. The advantage of using bees is that they can go anywhere, they don’t need a warrant. They save human time and money.
It sounded plausible and I must admit that, for a short time, I believed the story, but this was an art gallery and I should have been more circumspect.
I was visiting the recent exhibition “Apiculture: Bees and the Art of Pollination” at the University of Plymouth which showed how artists have responded to the problems faced by bees. The exhibition was curated by Amy Shelton as part of the Honeyscribe project which explores the relationship between bee health, human health, the environment and the arts. Her exhibition brought together the work of ten internationally known artists many of whom also work with scientists.
Once I realised that I was being taken for a ride, I could see that the police beehive and this film might be warning about of the perils of a culture where overexploitation of wildlife and infringement of personal freedom were commonplace.
I was made to think again, however, when I read a recent paper from the Apiculture Group at Sussex University. Dr Margaret Couvillon and colleagues had been interested to find out whether so-called agri-environment schemes really were effective. Major changes in farming have occurred since the middle of the 20th century leading to the loss of habitat for wildlife and the increased use of chemicals. European Union agri-environment schemes are designed to provide practical support to farmers to protect valuable and threatened landscape and to encourage them to adopt practices that support wildlife. Different levels of “stewardship” exist corresponding to different levels of support for the environment. Payments amounting to £400 million a year are made to farmers in England for these schemes but outcomes are often unclear.
In this new study, Couvillon and colleagues have used foraging honeybees to act as assessors of landscape quality to see if agri-environment schemes actually do deliver.
Honeybees depend for their survival on the availability of abundant forage in the form of flowers so they are continually assessing the “quality” of the surrounding environment. Worker bees returning to the hive perform the “waggle dance” to communicate to their nest mates the location of the most profitable foraging locations. The waggle dance encodes information about the distance and direction of the preferred forage and if this “language” could be decoded then honeybees could be used to monitor the quality of the landscape.
The Sussex group have done just that. By analysing the bees’ waggle dances, they can “eavesdrop” on honeybee workers when they express their foraging preferences for different types of landscape. Three hives situated at the University of Sussex were studied over two flowering seasons. The bees foraged over a mixed landscape consisting of urban land, rural land receiving no environmental support and rural land receiving different levels of agri-environment support. Couvillon and colleagues decoded waggle dances from 5484 worker bees and found considerable variation in foraging preference for different parts of the landscape. Rural land supported by agri-environment schemes was visited more often by the bees whereas urban land, rural land not receiving agri-environment support and, surprisingly, rural land under organic stewardship were visited less often.
The bees expressed their strongest preference for rural land under higher level stewardship including local nature reserves. These schemes provide the greatest support for the environment and may encourage growth of forage-rich wild flowers. Money spent on higher level stewardship schemes and nature reserves may, therefore, be helping to support bees and other important pollinators whose habitat has been degraded by changes in farming practices during the 20th century.
In contrast, the bees expressed their lowest preference for rural land under organic entry level stewardship. Although this scheme does provide support for the environment and the land is farmed using organic principles, the practices used to establish the land may prevent nectar-rich plants from flowering. This unexpected observation should make organic farmers reflect on the methods they are using.
This is a fascinating study illustrating how the language of the honeybee waggle dance is used to communicate information about the health of the surrounding landscape to the hive community. Couvillon and colleagues have shown that by translating the bee language they can also access this information and, potentially, use it as an important tool to inform policy for supporting wildlife.
At the end of the paper, Couvillon and colleagues emphasise how, with their analysis, honeybees can be used to survey landscape health and they can do this more cheaply, more effectively and more quickly than humans could ever do – a surprising echo of the words used by the “police beekeeper”.
*The Flying Squad is a branch of the UK police specialising in the investigation of commercial armed robberies. They were immortalised in the TV series, The Sweeney.