Protecting bees and balancing food security

Photo courtesy of Daphne Wong.

An award-winning modelling tool created by bioscientists from the University of Exeter is creating a buzz through its contribution to understanding bee colony survival. The tool is helping agri-food companies like Syngenta develop new products and services, and reshaping UK and European policy on the use of pesticides.

The BEEHAVE models, developed by Professor Juliet Osborne and her team at the University's Environment and Sustainability Institute (ESI), use biologically realistic simulations of bee colonies to assess the effects of multiple 'stressors' – factors such as disease, pesticides, land-use change and beekeeping interventions. In addition, nectar and pollen resources can be translated from real to virtual landscapes via a user-friendly mobile app called BeeMapp.

The project won the Social Impact category at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) Innovator of the Year Awards 2017.

Professor Osborne said: "Pesticide development and regulation across the EU and USA costs millions of euros/dollars each year. We hope that BEEHAVE will be used over the next 10 years to refine and manage their registration and use, with a potentially significant reduction in environmental harm and with cost savings. The decline in pollinator populations is now a major threat to global food production: it is estimated that 90 per cent of plants – and 75 per cent of global food crops – depend on pollination; the global value of pollination has been estimated at $200-$600 billion."

Syngenta, a global business producing agrochemicals and seeds, was one of the early supporters of the project. Dr Pernille Thorbek, Ecological Modeller at Syngenta, said: "Syngenta is always looking to further its knowledge of the interactions between environmental factors and crop protection products and in particular to understand the impact of multiple stressors on bees and to use such understanding to mitigate any potential impact. In 2008, as part of our ongoing commitment to better understanding environmental interactions, we joined with Professor Juliet Osborne to apply for a BBSRC Industrial Partnership Award with a view to developing a new modelling tool for bees."

BEEHAVE was subsequently developed using £1.5 million of BBSRC funding. As well as the pilot study, Syngenta funded approximately 12 per cent of the BBSRC costs and also provided resources for collaborations with academics not eligible for BBSRC funding.

As well as using BEEHAVE to improve stewardship schemes, and design and refine risk assessments, Syngenta has seen benefits in other areas of its business: "Since Syngenta was an active collaborator in the model's development, it has helped improve the scientific skills of our staff," commented Dr Thorbek. "Syngenta greatly values Prof. Osborne's integrity as a scientist and the outstanding team she leads. The team's skills and depth of understanding of bees (eg behaviour, biology, husbandry, foraging, experimental methods, ecology, parasites, diseases and modelling techniques) have continued to impress us."

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has recommended that BEEHAVE – together with associated tools BEESCOUT and Bumble-BEEHAVE – is used as a framework to assess the impact of pesticides and other stressors on bees.

In order to maximise BEEHAVE's effectiveness, the model is free to download, ensuring that a wide range of different users can scrutinise and develop it further.

A pilot project run with Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) has seen farmers and landowners using a bespoke decision-support tool (called BEE-STEWARD) to learn where their wild bee colonies are and how they might survive under different conditions.

Colette Beckman, Manager of Cornwall AONB, said: "Cornwall's economy relies on its landscape, and we're concerned by the continued rapid decline of biodiversity in the AONB, particularly in the bee and pollinator species. If we don't have pollinators, that makes it difficult for us to produce food. The objectives for farmers and conservation are absolutely aligned on this issue: farmers need bees, farmers need pollinators, so the more farms and land managers that get involved in this, the better".

Dr Grace Twiston-Davies, a Research Fellow in the team, said: "We are working with the full support of Natural England and land advisory NGOs to develop BEE-STEWARD. The AONB units work with more than 200 farmers in the South West, and with our partners' support we hope to scale to national coverage within two years. Natural England would like to incorporate our decision-support tool into their Wild Pollinator and Farm Wildlife Package Calculator, designed to aid farmers applying for the Countryside Stewardship Scheme."

A stretch target is to use BEE-STEWARD to provide a mechanism by which farmers can add value to their products in the retail food chain, thus creating economic impact over the next five to ten years.

All models are freely available to download at