Global Decline in Bees Could Be Halted in North; A Dramatic Fall in Bee Populations Worldwide Poses a Real Threat to Food Production. CHRISTOPHER KNOX Takes a Closer Look at the Problem and Talks to One Man from Tyneside Who May Have the Solution

The Journal (Newcastle, England), June 22, 2011 | Go to article overview

Global Decline in Bees Could Be Halted in North; A Dramatic Fall in Bee Populations Worldwide Poses a Real Threat to Food Production. CHRISTOPHER KNOX Takes a Closer Look at the Problem and Talks to One Man from Tyneside Who May Have the Solution


Byline: CHRISTOPHER KNOX

THE sound of bees buzzing around our gardens and countryside is a quintessential part of summer. But that sound is becoming rarer and rarer every year and its silencing is far more ominous than many people realise.

England's bees are vanishing faster than anywhere else in Europe, with more than half of hives dying out over the past 20 years.

The long-term impact of such a decline could prove catastrophic, particularly when you consider that 76% of worldwide food production and 84% of plant species are dependent on pollination by bees.

Much of the decline, ranging up to 85% in some parts of the world, is taking place mainly in the industrialised northern hemisphere due to more than a dozen factors, according to a recent report by the United Nations' environmental agency.

The situation is so serious that the UK Government has launched a pounds 10m project to find out what is causing colony collapse disorder, with possible reasons including pesticides, air pollution, a lethal pinhead-sized parasite that only affects bee species in the northern hemisphere, mismanagement of the countryside and the loss of flowering plants and a decline in the number of beekeepers in Europe.

The fact that the issue is of huge national importance makes it all the more surprising to find out that the answer may lie in a small technology company in Newcastle.

Dr Huw Evans and his wife Sandra have spent years trying to interpret the buzzing coming out of beehives and recently received pounds 100,000 of investment to find clients for their business Arnia, which hopes to commercialise its sophisticated bee-monitoring equipment.

Their equipment can help to investigate the health and behaviour of bees as well as find out why bee populations are falling to critical levels.

Electronic engineer Dr Evans and his biologist wife, both keen beekeepers, hope their collective talents will see them exporting the technology to crop producers and beekeepers around the world.

The technology can also being developed to help beekeepers predict when bees are about to swarm, which is part of their reproductive activity.

The effective management of these swarms (see panel) is a key part of the fight back against the depleting number of bees, with keepers able to deploy a number of methods to ensure that reproduction is maximised.

Huw Evans said: "Sandra and I have been beekeepers for a long time and realise the difficulties involved.

"Having to take apart beehives once a week can be very stressful for both the bees and their keeper and can be hugely time-consuming.

"We wanted to design something that could make sense of the noises made in colonies so that keepers could predict and manage their swarms more easily.

"Arnia's technology is essentially a small device which monitors audio frequency signals produced within the hive and sophisticated algorithms which identify patterns and changes in bee behaviour. "From that, we can supply an accurate prediction of colony swarming several weeks in advance, providing beekeepers with time to effectively manage the swarm."

The couple, who live in Newcastle, are also keen to work with the scientific community to use the technology as a way of establishing a deeper understanding as to why bee numbers have plummeted.

The monitoring system, currently being used in research at Newcastle University and Dundee University, builds on the work of Edward Farrington Woods, who joined the BBC as a sound engineer in 1932 and who began recording bees in the 1950s.

Over the next 19 years, he wrote extensively about his discoveries, notably in numerous articles in British Bee Journal as well as in Bee World, Nature and New Scientist.

Dr Evans said: "The increased number of urban farmers means there are more and more people becoming interested in beekeeping as a means of making their own honey. …

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Global Decline in Bees Could Be Halted in North; A Dramatic Fall in Bee Populations Worldwide Poses a Real Threat to Food Production. CHRISTOPHER KNOX Takes a Closer Look at the Problem and Talks to One Man from Tyneside Who May Have the Solution
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