Witten by: Laine Callaghan
Humans rely on pollinators. They’re essential to our survival. In fact, an estimated 90% of the world’s flowering plants and more than 75% of agricultural crops benefit from animal pollination to some extent. With increasing population size, climate change and an ever-growing lack of food security, these pollination services have become more important than ever and play a critical role in the development of sustainable food production systems.
In the past, most UK crop pollination was carried out by wild pollinators. This includes butterflies, moths, flies and bees. However, over the last century, our landscapes have changed dramatically. Woodlands have been lost to urban developments, over 97% of wild-flower meadows cut back, and diverse farms turned to large-scale monocultures. As a result, wild pollinators have declined drastically.
How do farmers pollinate their crops now?
With wild pollinators becoming scarcer, farmers started to introduce commercial bumblebee and honeybee hives into their farms to pick up the slack. Whilst bumblebee boxes are imported from abroad from countries like Spain, most honeybees are supplied by UK beekeepers. In the UK alone there are approximately 25,000 beekeepers, many of whom work with farmers through contracts to pollinate crops.
Despite a growing demand for honeybee hives on commercial farms, very little is known about the best way to keep a hive on a farm. There is a common saying in the beekeeper community, that “If you put 5 beekeepers in a room, you’ll get 10 opinions” and speaking from personal experience, this couldn’t be truer. I’ve met several beekeepers through my project so far and all of them manage their hives differently. Some use Commercial hives, others use Nationals. Some use supplemental feeds whilst others don’t. Some keep their hives clustered together, others spread them across the farm. The differences are endless.
Why are other inputs like fertilisers and pesticides incredibly precise, but honeybees are so varied?
Unfortunately, there has been very little research into the optimum conditions to keep the bees in. Most information in the beekeeping world comes from trial and error or is passed down from generation to generation. The impact of conditions such as hive density, size and positioning on bee health, productivity and ultimately pollination are largely unknown but as demand for food increases, farmers are expected to produce more sustainable systems with refined and efficient inputs. This is a major challenge faced by the agricultural sector. How can we boost pollination if we don’t understand our pollinators?
Inside the hive
With the University of Reading, my goal is to develop a tool to make beekeeping more precise and productive. To help, The World Bee Project, Bee Hero and Oracle have come together to develop remote, in-hive sensors and databases that monitor the conditions inside and outside a honeybee hive. The sensors monitor temperature, acoustics and humidity inside the hive, acoustic signals outside the hive and even the number of bees entering and exiting the hive at any time. Using Bluetooth, they then transfer the data to a local gateway which sends that information to an online database to be stored and analysed.
Combining this with observational field data gives new insight into the health and productivity of the hives on a farm. In my first year, I have worked on three farms, all growing strawberries under polytunnels.
I have investigated how pollinator communities and fruit productivity change at increasing distances from the honeybee hives. Do we see more honeybees at 60m away from the hive compared to 100m away? If so, do we see higher fruit quality too? By asking these questions, I hope to identify pollination hotspots and coldspots on a finer scale in the field which can be used to improve hive placement and positioning.