Did you know 75% of European food production depends on bee pollination? Bees are keystone species in their environment – even the Telegraph admitted in 2015 that bees contribute £150 million more to the UK economy than the Royal Family does through tourism.

And yet the bees are declining, dying, and dead: 9.2% of bee species are considered threatened in Europe, for 56.7% we simply lack the scientific information to make that call, and 97% of wildflower meadows have been lost since 1930.

Much talked about, the concept of mission-oriented challenges is shaping UK innovation policy: utilising the pioneering and innovative minds of the UK to solve national and global problems. Here’s my suggestion: let’s prove we are the bee’s knees by saving the bees.

Our universities and businesses have already put time, research and action into this apiary area, from botany, to biochemistry, from engineering to ecology.

  • The University of Bristol and Queen Mary University of London showed the intricacies of bee senses around the pattern of scent, deepening understanding of pollination.
  • The Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects at the University of Sussex carries out both basic and applied research, as well as hosting workshops for beekeepers. This programme is sponsored by Rowse, who also carry out other endeavours which protect bees and educate beekeepers.
  • An engineer at the School of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Leeds used techniques, more commonly applied to solving industrial problems, to investigate the heat and humidity in both natural and man-made hives. Applying thermofluidity theories, it was shown how man-made hives might accidentally support mite growth.
  • Researchers at the University of Sheffield, in collaboration with Syngenta, have proposed a RNAi-based pesticide, thus generating an environmentally friendly and species-specific pest killer.
  • The Reading Bee team, of the University of Reading, were recently awarded by Defra for their research.
  • The University of Exeter, in collaboration with Syngenta and Bayer and funded by the BBSRC, used computer simulations to biologically model the response of bee colonies to stressors, which can be used as a framework to assess and predict impacts of pesticides.
  • The University of Oxford’s Plan Bee initiative centres around placing “hotels” for solitary bees in the city and nearby woodland, providing both habitats and research material.
  • Birmingham City University have installed beehives on roof buildings, providing learning opportunities for student filmmakers, architects and biologists.
  • The Pharmabees at Cardiff University have spread hives across the campus, engaged with communities in a plethora of ways, as well as supporting schools across Wales.

Theodore Maiman did not foresee that his laser might one day become a checkout scanner, on which all business relies. It can be hard to foresee the total value and impact of basic research. The same is true for apiology where, beyond the importance of bees themselves, we are only beginning to see the possible applications and concurrent discoveries: from nimble insect-like drones to minute wireless trackers. Who knows what the future might hold? Improved heating and cooling devices, ground-breaking temperature-regulated gene therapies, futuristic locating mechanisms – we shall wait and see.