The Buzz about Bees

Pollination is the fertilisation of plants through transfer of pollen. Without pollination, plants would not be able to reproduce, and would quickly die out. It is a crucial process that most living things rely on, wholly or partially. Humans, for example, would be left with very little to farm and eat if all pollination were to cease.

Pollen transfer can be abiotic or biotic. The former refers to non-living mechanisms of transport, such as wind or rain. Biotic pollination is much more common, and occurs when insects, birds, bats (and other mammals like monkeys and squirrels) transfer pollen between plants.

With almost 20,000 known species, bees are perhaps one of the most recognisable and well-known pollinator insects. Studies estimate that one third of commercial crops are either entirely or partially pollinated by (and thus dependent on) bees. These include some of our most loved and economically important produce like broccoli, bell peppers, onions, beans, apples, cherries, peaches, strawberries, coffee, cotton and almonds. This was perfectly illustrated in the activity stand ‘What Happens When Bees Go Extinct?’ as part of the Food for the Future event hosted by the Sheffield British Science Association for the Sheffield Food Festival back in May.

Of the approximate 785 species that pollinate crop plants, the Western honey bee (Apis mellifera) is the single most important one. Its wide dispersion and high populace mean that it pollinates the most crops of all species. Domesticated and kept by humans for around 5,000 years, records of beekeeping exist on the walls of ancient Egyptian monuments. This species is the most common of all seven honey bee species in the genus Apis, and is found on all continents bar Antarctica. This extreme distribution of A. mellifera around the globe is largely due to human activity. For example, migrants from Europe introduced the bee to North America in the 1600s.

Picture BeesThe Western honey bee, Apis mellifera

Despite its widespread range, the population of the Western honey bee has dramatically declined in the last decade or so. Research from Pennsylvania State University found that North American populations have been hit hard, as have the populations in several European countries such as Spain, France and Greece. From 2007-2013, it has been estimated that roughly ten million hives were lost. Given the bees’ significance to agriculture and local ecosystems, this is a worrying development for farmers and environmentalists alike. Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is the leading cause of this decline.

CCD has existed throughout history in all regions where honey bees are domesticated, but has recently intensified. The disorder occurs when most or all of the worker bees in a hive disappear leaving only the queen bee, several nurses, and immature bees or larvae behind. Food supplies are usually plentiful. However, with an insufficient workforce, this supply simply cannot be maintained. Causes of CCD are unknown, though there are many factors thought to have some influence. Disease, pesticide use, a lack of genetic diversity, and migratory beekeeping are all potential contributors to CCD and bee death.

The parasitic mite Varroa destructor is perhaps the biggest pest to honeybees. The mite feeds on the blood of adult bees and pupae, and transmits diseases such as deformed wing virus. This virus leads to the exile or death of many bees within a hive. The mites are hard to get rid of and have very high reproductive rates so protecting bees can be quite difficult once mites attach. Fortunately, there are several ongoing studies looking into how to deal with the mites, so there may be hope for affected hives in the future.

Picture 1BeesVarroa mite on a honey bee

Neonicotinoids (the family of pesticides now the subject of bans heavy regulation and debates) have been shown to negatively affect honey bee hives and contribute to CCD. Queen bees exposed to neonicotinoids had a 60% survival rate compared to 80% of control queens as a recent 2015 study found. Another study concluded that honey bee immune systems are compromised by neonicotinoids making them more susceptible to diseases. In tandem with parasitic mites, this may affect hives even more. It is important to note, however, that there are still knowledge gaps regarding this subject. Research as to how, why and to what extent the pesticides affect A. mellifera is still ongoing.

Luckily, the plight of the honey bee (and other bee species whose populations are falling) has been covered extensively by the media in recent years and many people are trying to help the situation. A veritable fountain of information on how we can help save the bees has sprung up. From the Royal Horticultural Society to the RSPB, there are plenty of articles detailing which plants are best for bees, how to provide shelter and how to revive tired bees. What is also positive is the number of companies invested in helping bees too; from the National Trust to well-known supermarkets. Wildflower seeds (which you can get from Grow Wild UK) are very accessible and can easily be planted for a bee-friendly spot in the garden or window box.

There is hope for the bees yet, but it will take the concern, kindness and help of all of us all if we want the population of these buzzy pollinators to climb again.

About the Author
Helen Alford is an MSc Science Communication and BSc Biological Sciences graduate having studied at the Universities of Sheffield and Birmingham. She has got a particular interest in microbiology, immunology, mycology, and how they often overlap! She is passionate about science communication and is involved with a local radio show focused on science and technology (


Have you got what it takes to be a Nature Detective?

By Caroline Wood

What do a live kangaroo, mammoth teeth and otter poo have in common? They could all be found at ‘Nature Detectives’: our last outreach event held at Weston Park Museum on Saturday 24th February 2018!

A couple of months ago, we were approached by Weston Park Museum who wanted to increase the science content of their programme of family-friendly activities. Knowing how popular and well-loved the museum is, we leapt at the chance to get involved. During a ‘behind the scenes tour’, we discovered a treasure trove hidden away in the cupboards: bones, teeth, skulls and incredibly lifelike taxidermy. This gave us the idea for our event – using the museum’s collections we would show how scientists can use the ‘clues’ animals leave behind to learn more about their lives and habits.

The museum staff were very accommodating, giving us the use of both their upstairs and downstairs activity rooms. This allowed us to plan a ‘detective trail’ of different activities. After completing each activity, the children would be given a ‘clue’ about a mystery animal.  Once they had all the clues, they could then use our identification key to work out the animal and claim a free goody bag. The idea proved a popular one. Barely a few minutes after opening, the museum was filled with parents and children eagerly filling in their clue sheets.

At each of the activity stands, the children received a ‘clue’ to help them identify a mystery animal…
Photo credit: Daniella Sasaki

Downstairs the big question was ‘Who dung it?’ where we had invited Dr Deborah Dawson and her team from the Sheffield Otter Project as special guests they had brought a plethora of poo samples from all sorts of animals, and demonstrated how these ‘remains’ contain hidden information about animal diets, and how they can even be sources of DNA. Next to them, the children had great fun getting very messy on our footprints stand, where they were busy making animal tracks using pipe cleaner feet and paint.

Upstairs the fun continued with lots of opportunities to handle and closely inspect the museum’s artefacts, including our ‘What can we learn about teeth?’ activity led by Rebecca Hollely, one of our BSA volunteers. “The children really enjoyed being able to hold different kinds of skulls and teeth to guess the species and its diet. We had a range of animals, from the skull of the well-known goat, to a swordfish bill, and even a weighty mammoth molar which impressed children and parents alike!” she said.

Learning what teeth can tell us about animal diets – with the help of a kangaroo! Photo credit: Daniella Sasaki

Meanwhile, our ‘Spot the Moth’ activity used the case of the peppered moth to show how animals evolve to become better adapted to their environment. Some of the moths were so well camouflaged that we stopped using them because they were simply too difficult to find! In our final activity, birds were the star of the show: using the museum’s complete taxidermy collection of British birds, we showed how key features can help us to tell different species apart. “We had a stall teaching kids how to use identification keys to find out the names of taxidermy animals. Both the kids and parents really enjoyed being able to see and examine the taxidermy animals, and many said they had learnt a lot” said Weilin Wu, another one of our volunteers.

Just some of the rewards in our goody bags!
Photo credit: Daniella Sasaki

Throughout the day, we had a constant stream of visitors which left us all exhausted at the end, even those who didn’t dress as a kangaroo to add further amusement! But it was so rewarding to see our visitors really engage with the activities and ask so many questions. The mystery animal quiz was so popular that we had to run and print more copies, and we only just about had enough goody bags to last to the very end. Judging by the smiling faces and feedback, the kids felt a real sense of achievement from the activities. As Rebecca summed it up, “The day was filled with laughter, gasps of exclamation and it would be harder to say who had the most fun… the children or the volunteers!”

BSA Museum
We had a brilliant time at Weston Park Museum and can’t wait to come back for our next event!

We had great fun and we are very grateful to Weston Park museum for making us feel so welcome. We are already looking forward to holding our next event there, “The Science of Multilingualism”, where we will explore what happens in the brain as we learn and speak different languages. This will take place on Saturday 14th April 2018 – keep an eye on our events page, Twitter account and Facebook page for more details!

With special thanks to RSPB, Weston Park Museum, Plantlife UK and the British Ecological Society for providing pens, colouring pencils, stickers and wildlife spotter cards for our goody bags.

And of course, a big thank you to our amazing BSA Sheffield volunteers who made this event happen: Weilin Wu, Caitlin Higgott, Olivia Rhoden, Lynette Hodges, Rebecca Hollely, Shauni McGregor, Ruby Kell, Daniella Sasaki, Antonio del la Vega de Leon, Chloe McCole, Jingyi Huang, Ellie Marshall, Tilly Dixon, Matthew Keedy, Francesca Dawson and Helen Alford.

About the Author

Caroline Wood is a PhD student studying the interactions between parasitic weeds and their hosts at the University of Sheffield. She first became involved with BSA Sheffield when she went along to the launch meeting ‘out of curiosity’. Since then, she has been involved in a number of events for BSA Sheffield, including an activity stand at the Sheffield Food Festival on crop diseases; a Fun Palace on the theme of the five senses and ‘The Science of Wellness’, a collaboration with Sheffield Flourish, a local mental health charity. She blogs at and you can also follow her on Twitter