Did you know that nearly all of our food comes from plants? Or that approximately half of the calories eaten by humans come from grass ? These were exactly the kinds of facts that we wanted to draw attention to at our Plant Power event at Sheffield Food Festival.
On the 25th of May, 2019, BSA Sheffield volunteers gathered to run a set of fun activities all about plants. Surrounded by the beautiful foliage of Sheffield’s Winter Gardens, there couldn’t have been a more fitting location to engage the public in plant science.
Visitors got to enjoy the beauty of Winter Gardens as they completed the event’s quiz trail. Finding the clues hidden around the garden allowed visitors to discover a number of fun plant facts. Along the trail our visitors learnt that vanilla comes from a type of orchid, caffeine is actually a natural plant pesticide and that the fastest growing plant is bamboo, which can grow up to an entire metre in a single day! Visitors that found all the clues would discover a secret word that they could exchange for a goody bag full of BSA goodies. The thought of winning a goody bag made this a particularly popular activity with our younger visitors, who could be found persistently searching for clues around the garden throughout the day.
As well as our trail, we also ran a stall of exciting plant activities, including our ‘Guess the Grass’ game. A huge amount of the food we eat comes from grasses like rice, wheat, corn and barley but could our visitor identify these plants in real life? This proved to be a tricky challenge as although the corn was easy to spot with its popcorn-like seeds, some of the grasses were much harder to recognise. Telling apart the barley and the wheat was a particularly difficult challenge as these plants are very closely related and look very similar.
Alongside our ‘Guess the Grass’ game we also had some rhizotrons on display. Rhizotrons are clear containers that allow a plant’s roots to be viewed growing through the soil. Around half of a plant is hidden underground in the soil and having our rhizotrons on display allowed us to talk to our visitors about the importance of plant roots and how they can maintain healthy soils. We even had some worksheets for our visitors to take home, showing them how to make a rhizotron for themselves from old plastic bottles.
Throughout the day, we met lots of visitors passing through the Winter Gardens who were completely new to BSA events. “It was great to see not only kids engaging with the activity but also several adults came around and we had some interesting discussions” said Antonio, the Sheffield BSA branch chair who was volunteering on the day. We were given plenty of lovely feedback from our visitors who particularly enjoyed the child-friendly quiz trail and felt that the event had given them a new positive outlook into the world of plants and plant science.
Eshel, A. & Beeckman, T. Plant roots : the hidden half. Boca Ranton: CRC Press, 2013.
About the author Shauni McGregor is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield studying plant biology. Her research focuses on plant gas exchange and water use, specifically in grasses and cereals. Alongside her PhD, Shauni is a keen science communicator, volunteering regularly with the Sheffield BSA and working with the University of Sheffield to deliver fun and exciting science events for all ages. You can learn more about Shauni’s work or get in touch through her twitter page @shauni_mcgregor.
While we were watching television or pondering what to ask for a Christmas gift, a major breakthrough was reported in November.
Brain organoids or ‘mini brains’ were grown in a laboratory and have produced brain waves similar to that of a premature baby. They are deserving of the name ‘mini brains’ for they are only 4mm across. Prof Alysson Muotri and his team at the University of California used stem cells (which are fascinating because of their ability to turn into other cell types) and added a few special ingredients (like transcription factors) in order to grow these mini brains. But it took ten months for the mini brains to mature enough to produce these brainwave signals. That is a long time. Nevertheless, this advancement could help scientists understand early brain development, which has been near impossible due to the difficulty in getting foetal samples or examining foetuses in utero.
By replicating the early brain, scientists will be able to compare the differences in development, structure and function between normal brains and misfunctioning ones. Thereby leading to the study and hopeful cure of diseases such as epilepsy, autism and other diseases which are thought to occur due to abnormal electrical signalling within the brain.
However, there are some pitfalls. Firstly, just because the electrical activity is similar to that of a premature baby, it does not mean it is the same. Therefore, any results or hypothesis we generate may be instantly invalid. Secondly, to prove that the lab-grown mini brains are the same as a premature baby’s brain will also be a task because very little is known about utero baby brains and how they are wired. There could also be missing key components. So, we do not know for certain whether these brains match premature baby brains in terms of their genetic profile
Many scientists believe that consciousness begins between 24 – 28 weeks post fertilisation due to the fact that this is when the thalamo-cortical complex is developed enough to be able to supposedly generate consciousness. Furthermore, this is also when reflex reactions to harmful stimuli start occurring. This raises an ethical quandary – are the organoids conscious? We can’t really say for sure because we can’t just measure for consciousness. Muotri’s lab is planning on seeing if the organoids mature further and function as a normal cortex by connecting them to organoids of other body parts to see if it functions correctly. He would consider halting the project if there was evidence that the organoids had become self-aware, but right now they are very primitive. “It’s a very grey zone in this stage, and I don’t think anyone has a clear view of the potential of this”.
What are your opinions on this? Do you think we should be conducting this research? The future rewards may be great, but is there a hidden cost?
If this article interested you, then be sure to read my other articles.
I am currently a 2nd year Biomedical Sciences student at the University of Sheffield. I organise and I’m involved in events to spread knowledge and to get people thinking, such as Ted Talks, Change Lab and I’m on the University’s Welfare Committee. I also have a passion for both scientific and fictional writing, so if you know of any opportunities or you want to read more of my pieces, don’t hesitate to contact me via email -firstname.lastname@example.org or my LinkedIn account – https://www.linkedin.com/in/abdullah-iqbal/
Again, every 11th of February, we are happy to celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. This is a day created in order to achieve full and equal access to, and participation in science for women and girls. Thanks to this day, we can also recognise the value that scientific women bring to science and the society and help to make their careers more visible. However, we still have a long way to go to bring them the recognition they deserve. By celebrating this international day, we showcase to society the important scientific work that women contribute to.
The scientific community often uses Ada Lovelace as an icon for women in science and technology. However, there are plenty of others we can name. For instance, Rita Levi-Montalcini.
Rita Levi-Montalcini was an Italian scientist honoured for her work in neurobiology. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1986) jointly with her colleague Stanley Cohen for the discovery of the nerve growth factor (NGF). From 2001 until her death, she also served in the Italian Senate as a Senator for Life. This honour was given due to her significant scientific contributions. On the 22 April 2009, she reached the age of 100 and at the time of her death, she was the oldest living Nobel laureate.
Rita’s father (a mathematician and electrical engineer) was against his daughter attending university as it would interfere with her future roles as wife and mother. On the other hand, Rita’s mother encouraged her to talk with her father about her intention to study medicine. At age 20, Levi-Montalcini decided that she wanted a life different from the one imagined for every Victorian woman; she wanted to go to medical school and study to be a doctor (Biography: “In Praise of Imperfection”). Finally, she started her career in Turin in 1930, where she became enamoured with the process of neurogenesis. Even as a Jewish woman and scientist in the time of Mussolini and Hitler, Levi-Montalcini was determined to continue her research. Her perseverance made her build a little laboratory in her own bedroom and she sent research manuscripts to Belgium to be published; publishing was impossible for her due to World War II. Rita finally split her job between the USA and Italy developing her research as a Full Professor in 1958 to 1977 at Washington University and in her second lab in Rome (1962).
A key discovery she made during her time in the United States was developing an in-vitro culture technique to grow neurons in a dish. With Stanley Cohen, Levi-Montalcini discovered that peripheral tissues secrete a factor that directly influences neuronal survival in mammals. Their discovery was published in 1960, and they termed the substance “nerve growth factor,” or NGF. NGF was only the first of an entire class of chemotactic factors (neurotrophins) which promote the growth and survival of specific subsets of neurons, amongst other functions. As the field of molecular neuroscience progressed, it became evident that neurotrophins also have roles in the adult brain. They both received the Nobel prize highlighting the importance of their work, and the immeasurable effects it has had on other multiple fields of scientific research.
We can now understand how Rita Levi-Montalcini’s perseverance and passion for science made her one of the most important women in science from the 20th century leading her to become an inspiration for many other scientists all over the world. That way we can say that she is a wonderful example of the role of women in science during the past few centuries. We need to keep on making scientific women more visible. This way we recognise their hard work and the contributions they make to science, just as Rita did.
About the Author
Margarita Segovia-Roldán (PhD) is a neuroscientist and electrophysiologist who studied biology at the University of Seville (Spain). She has developed her scientific career in the UK through her work at University College London (UCL) and the University of Sheffield. She is passionate about science communication and is involved with the British Science Association (BSA) Sheffield branch (where she was also one of its founder members). She is also involved in the Society of Spanish Researchers in the UK (SRUK), where she develops different public engagement activities as #CineScience and she collaborates on the #SRUKBlog.
Back in November the Huxley Summit was held in London by the British Science Association. It brought together various people in and outside of science, and the theme was the challenges and opportunities of the Fourth Revolution. The topics of single use plastics, artificial intelligence (AI) and genetic editing were used as a way to explore public opinion and perception, which is central to whether these novel technologies can be adopted. Katherine Mathieson (chief executive of the British Science Association) explores this issue in her review of the Huxley Summit 2018. But scientific engagement strongly affects public opinion. It is therefore worth going back and reviewing key talks of the British Science Festival that represent essential components of good science engagement. I had the pleasure of attending the festival in Hull for the first time back in September, and I did so with our branch’s tardigrade mascot Blu, who had his/her own adventures at the festival!
DIVERSIFY YOUR AUDIENCE (Inspiring women into science, Anne-Marie Imafidon, 11 Sept. 2018)
Diversifying the audience that you are trying to inspire is essential if you want to unleash new talent, skills and perspective. Unless you have been living under a rock you will probably already know about the problems that girls and women face in science. While it isn’t just women that we need to encourage and support in science, Anne-Marie’s talk represents the need to diversify your audience. Recognising this need, Anne-Marie co-founded STEMettes, a social enterprise to inspire and support girls into STEM. Her festival talk was a combination of her backstory, identifying the problem, and then talking about STEMettes. She largely focused on inspiring girls into engineering, so we saw a few videos of what some girls had already achieved. For example, by using an algorithm you can programme your own lights to go from study mode to disco mode! Ultimately STEMettes is about changing perception and increasing awareness of girls in science, and boosting their confidence to do it. Diversity is essential both within science and its communication, especially since the latter can influence the former, and with it we get new talent delivering the communication that will shape public opinion.
INSPIRE PEOPLE TOWARDS SCIENCE (What shapes your relationship to science? Professor Louise Archer, 12 Sept. 2018)
Good science communication through any medium will inspire people to continue to seek it out. For example, if it is taught in schools in a way that creates inspiration, it can increase children’s aspirations in science.
In this talk, Prof. Louise Archer described the ASPIRES project she directed that looked into why children either want to go into science or don’t. The idea that some people might not see themselves as a science person means they often don’t go on to become a scientist. It was this principle in their decade-long study of children aged between 10-19 years old that they wanted to address. They identified the factors that affected children’s aspirations and coalesced them together into the concept of science capital. Science capital is basically what shapes your relationship to science. It is about what you know, who you know, how you think and what you do; all of which is affected by your social, cultural and habitus spheres. The best part of this talk was when we got to calculate our own science capital through a series of questions (such as whether we and our parents had science degrees, and hold a science job etc.). We added or subtracted points for questions, and after getting ten points you then had to stand up. After another point milestone you then had to wave your arms around. If I remember correctly, we also had to do a little dance after another milestone! This was a fun and interesting demonstration showing that most of the audience clearly had a high science capital, which would be obvious for a science festival audience! For everyone present it was clear that they had been inspired to aim high, and as a result they have returned to science. This is something that science communicators can capitalise on: Presenting topics in a particular way that grabs people’s attention so that they will want to return.
WIN HEARTS, NOT JUST MINDS (Finding truth: is science enough? Panel chaired by Andy Extance, 14 Sept. 2018)
Science communication is not just about facts to win people over (just think about the debate on GMO’s that has raged for decades). When it comes to controversial topics, it is quite likely that people will have an emotional investment in particular results. Thus, the question is how can we expect to win people over with facts when they have already made up their minds based on this emotional investment? We can’t, and this talk on finding truth reflects this.
The panel for this debate consisted of Dr Jane Gregory, Dr Jack Stilgoe, Dr Erinna Ochu and was chaired by Andy Extance. As it turns out, the answer to the question of whether science is enough is a lot more complicated than people think. Most of the points made here converged on this due to various factors. For instance, Jane Gregory highlighted that there are different types of knowledge; that some cultures have different priorities on knowledge (e.g. religious). This point was taking a bit further by Erinna Ochu when she said we need to consider emotional truths (aka the emotional investment) even if it doesn’t match up with the facts. (It was at this point when a lady who didn’t believe in climate change walked out of the talk!) As Jack Stilgoe explained, we need to be aware that the media is trying to sell us a particular message, but we need to identify if it is valuable for us and also their motivations behind it. The one point that came through loud and clear is that as scientists we need to respect what people know, how they know it and therefore show more understanding. It is obvious that facts are not enough. We need to work around these other issues. Through this we can win people’s hearts, and then after that use the facts to win their minds.
UNDERSTAND THE PAST TO ADAPT (Changing the face of science engagement Professor John Durant, 14 Sept. 2018)
Science communication has come along way. There are new mediums, obstacles and challenges, and we need to understand these to make decisions about how we communicate today. John Durant provided a whirlwind tour of the history of science communication starting with the 1980’s. Back then, science communication was one-sided; talking to the audience but not really listening to them, which can come across as patronising. This is not to say that science communication back then was bad. As he described, there were some good things, such as more science books and fellowships. These days science communication has evolved into a two-way dialogue model taking science communication into science engagement. He noted that there are two opposing trends. One is mainstreaming science engagement; the live science, science cafes and events. The other is the inclusivity problem where particular minority groups are excluded. But some cultures had successfully integrated science into them as he explained: At a Native American convention in Montana for instance, there was a science learning tent where they had asked scientists to get involved.
By exploring this past, John gave some science communication recommendations: We need to diversify our engagement into other groups, we need to make our science communication more targeted and private by creating a cultural connection. What is interesting here is that he makes points not too dissimilar to mine: diversifying and creating a cultural connection (which one could argue is part of an emotional connection).
BRINGING IT ALTOGETHER (The Huxley Debate: what do we do about ocean plastics? Panel hosted by Lord David Willetts, 13 Sept. 2018 and Presidential Address: The AI Revolution- hopes, fears and opportunities Professor Jim Al-Khalili, 13 Sept. 2018)
These two talks represent two different ends of the science communication spectrum when considering the above topics. On one side, we have science communication of single use plastics ticking off the majority of my aforementioned points. On the other side we have AI, which as Katherine Mathieson reports has two polarised viewpoints.
The topic of ocean plastics has had some very good science engagement behind it boosting the field, and the talk itself reflects this.
Firstly, the panel itself had a good gender and professional diversity to it capitalising on various skills and talent. The chair was the politician Lord David Willetts. Andy Clarke represented the business sector as the former CEO of Asda. The non-profit sector was represented by Annemarie Nederhoed of the Plastic Soup Foundation. Katy Duke CEO of The Deep came from the interface between science and engagement, and finally Professor Daniel Parsons was the academic. However, science communication has also capitalised on diversity too. It was not just David Attenborough who has spoken about single use plastics. Liz Bonnin has also talked about it on her BBC programme Drowning in Plastic, and the field itself has seen a boom in being communicated to the public.
Secondly, it is these TV shows and the likes of it that have inspired people to ensure that people return to pursue this interest. Katy Duke expressed this herself: “there hasn’t been another environmental crisis that hasn’t gotten this much people engaged”. It has appealed to everyone and moreover, it has won hearts and minds as an important global issue. What is also worth considering (and also what I think draws people back to this topic) is that people can get proactive immediately. They can make informed decisions. Such as whether they should choose tin over plastic foil considering that tin has a carbon footprint seven times higher than that of plastic as Daniel Parsons explained. Annemarie Nederhoed mentioned microfibres and its effects on marine pollution but also how we can mitigate it.
Thirdly, by adapting how we communicate this science we can change it into a dialogue, and this actually happened at the Q&A afterwards. One man spoke passionately about there having been enough feasibility studies and that we should just get on with solutions. But Andy Clarke responded that actually we need to consider the whole model; the consequences of taking action without knowing enough. The perfect example to this is the tin versus plastic choice. A few other panel members highlighted that we do need more research to fill in knowledge gaps, such as the pathway of plastics. Overall the topic of single use plastics has done very well in science communication contributing to public (and global) opinion.
Jim Al Khalili’s talk was the presidential address which was to a packed room. His AI talk was well structured as he outlined its importance, how it is defined, recent breakthroughs (such as Deep Mind) and even fears. As he explained AI is already here and doing a lot of good (e.g. healthcare), and therefore it is vital that the public understand what is happening. According to him, the field is moving so fast that no wonder the public is concerned, but he then went on to address these concerns.
This is clearly a polarised discipline and Katherine Mathieson in her Huxley review recognised this: “In the current political climate, we must acknowledge the two polarised viewpoints that surround AI and gene-editing.” When it comes to inspiring people towards this science, many already see the benefits, but it would appear that people are also drawn to it out of fear (as opposed to a need to protect our planet that single use plastics evokes within us). Understanding the past to adapt, and winning hearts and not just minds seems to be exactly the purpose of the Huxley Debate. All those different factors (emotions, allaying fears, working around ethics and politics, and learning from the past) appear to be well-embedded in her comments: “The things driving the narrative are complicated and full of nuance”; “So, what can we do in our current positions? Having these conversations now is vital…”; “By using the tools of successful campaigns from the past and present, we can help propel the world towards a positive future.” Despite the science communication that AI has had recently, it is clear that the field has yet to have the same boost in science communication and engagement that single use plastics has had over the years.
By reviewing some of the British Science Festival talks we are reminded of the essential elements that can change the public’s perception of particular science issues: Diversity capitalises on talent which increases the number of scientists who then go on to do good communication by learning from the past. Through this they inspire the public to return to them, but also establish a rapport of respect with them. In short, by bringing all these issues together effectively we can take science communication and use it for beneficial public understanding. This in turn will affect public opinion on technology, and ultimately acceptance of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
About the Author
Danae Dodge finished her PhD at the University of Sheffield many years ago. Currently, she is re-directing herself into science communication. She volunteers for many science charities (which apart from the British Science Association Sheffield branch) includes Sense about Science, the Yorkshire regional branch of the Royal Society of Biology and The Scientista Foundation, USA. You can follow her on LinkedIn and on Twitter: @DanaeDodge
Invasive species are species that are not native to an ecosystem or country. Many have been introduced to the new area by humans, either accidentally or deliberately. There are a whole range of organisms that can be invasive, from animals and plants to tiny micro-organisms. Should we worry about them? Some invasive species can cause damage to the environment, the economy and even harm human health. In the UK alone the control of invasive species costs £1.7 billion every year (1).
Which invasive species do we find in the UK, and how did they get here? According to the GB Non-native Species Secretariat, over 3000 species in the UK are listed as invasive. Species have been introduced to the UK from all over the world, excluding Antarctica. They have spread to the UK through a variety of different methods including: escaping from the pet trade, accidental transport in cargo ships, planes, trains, or lorries and even some deliberate introductions to new habitats without consideration of the environmental or economic consequences.
The grey squirrels you see in the local park or garden are descended from North American or Canadian squirrels. They are causing the local extinction of the red squirrel (the UKs native squirrel species) by competing with them for food and transmitting squirrel pox – a deadly disease. They may be colourful, but ring-necked parakeets are also invasive in the UK and can cost the agricultural industry a lot of money by eating their way through ripe fruit. They also carry diseases that can infect chickens and some diseases that can infect humans in close contact.
Invasive species can also be found in aquatic environments. For example, signal crayfish originally from North America are pushing UK species of crayfish towards extinction by competing with them for shelters and spreading disease. Signal crayfish also dig deep burrows that can cause riverbank erosion and even influence flooding. Plants can be just as bad as animals when it comes to the impacts of invasions. Japanese knotweed for example can have structural impacts on both biological communities and habitats. Controlling Japanese knotweed is predicted to cost hundreds of millions of pounds every year around the world.
Scientists study a whole range of topics to help us understand more about invasive species: from studying their DNA, to mapping their range and spread in the new environment, and recording their behaviour. By doing so they assess the impacts invasive species have on the environment, and make predictions about the threats and conservation concerns invasive species can cause.
What can you do to help?
There are lots of different actions you can take if you want to help prevent the spread of invasive species. These range from contributing to citizen science by reporting when and where you detect an invasive species on a mobile application or a website (for example iRecord Ladybird or PlantTracker), to helping out at a local event to eradicate invasive species from an area. It also helps to remember to “Check, Clean and Dry” any equipment that has been in water as aquatic invasive species can be transported on unclean equipment (www.nonnativespecies.org/checkcleandry/).
Looking back through history, we see the wide range of advances in different scientific fields. However, these days there is still a very important point in science and technology that didn’t advance at the same speed and is one that we cannot afford to miss: I am talking about the recognition of the scientific work of many women researchers through science History. It is crucial to remember the role of these women and that is the reason why the scientific community choose Ada Lovelace as a symbol of the important role of women in science. Every year, on the second Tuesday of October, Ada Lovelace’s day is celebrated as an international celebration of women in science and technology. However, who was Ada Lovelace and why did she became the image that represents scientific women?
Ada Gordon (who later became Countess of Lovelace) was the only legitimate child of the writer Lord Byron. She was the first scientist to recognise the full potential of a “computing machine”. Thus she became the first computer programmer in history. Her mother gave her a strict childhood education of logical thinking, science and mathematics. Ada became fascinated with mechanisms and designing different types of machines, embracing that way the British Industrial Revolution. In 1833, Ada Lovelace helped develop a device called The Analytical Engine with Charles Babbage – “the father of computers”.
We can say that was the beginning of a crucial and important period in science, as that engine was the early predecessor of the modern computer! So now you start to get an idea of the crucial role that Ada Lovelace had in science and technology.
In 1842, she expanded these ideas on the use of machines through the manipulation of symbols; translating an article by Luigi Menabrea on the engine and adding an elaborate set of notes (entitled Notes). ‘Notes’ was the most elaborate and complete set of information which many experts consider to be the first computer program- that is, an algorithm designed to be carried out by a machine. Nowadays, because of her research on this topic she is often referred to as “the first computer programmer” as well as the inspiration behind (the well-known) Alan Turing’s work on first computer design around the 1940’s.
Ada died at the age of 36. However, as we can see, Ada was – and still is – an inspiration for many people, and for many women who want to pursue their careers in science. Her passion and vision for technology have made her a powerful symbol. She must be a clear example for many of us working in different scientific fields. She could be a key inspiration to make us understand we need to believe in ourselves and believe in our research. Of course, society still must change its perspective of female scientists and the role they deserve. But let’s start by thinking we can achieve what we want. Let’s be grateful to those who came before us, let’s recognise their hard work and let’s keep on fighting for our future and the future for other female scientists. Never forget your commitment to improve the system that has led to so many more opportunities for women in science today, and will lead to in the future.
About the Author Margarita Segovia-Roldán (PhD) is an neuroscientist and electrophysiologist who studied biology at the University of Seville (Spain). She has developed her scientific career in the UK through her work at the University College London (UCL) and the University of Sheffield. She is passionate about science communication and is involved with the British Science Association (BSA) Sheffield branch (where she is also one of its founder members). She is also involved in the Society of Spanish Researchers in the UK (SRUK), where she develops different public engagement activities as #CineScience and she collaborates on the #SRUKBlog.
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.
The 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 destructoris 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.
Varroa 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 (https://web.sheffieldlive.org/shows/the-live-science-radio-show/)