Page last updated at 18:12 GMT, Monday, 6 April 2009 19:12 UK

Hygiene gene offers hope for bees

Honeybees in a hive
Scientists will use glass-fronted hives to observe hygienic bees

A £1.9m study into honeybees could help save Britain's dwindling bee population, researchers at Sussex University have said.

Scientists have set up a "bee lab" to research the health and management of these social insects.

Some honeybees have a genetic tendency to be more hygienic and their hives are less prone to infection as a result.

Scientists hope to be able to breed from these bees to create "hygienic" colonies with lower disease rates.

The head of the "bee lab", Professor Francis Ratnieks, said the good thing about hygiene was that it targeted not just one disease but several and it was entirely natural.

Hygienic bees were more likely to remove diseased or dead larvae from their hives, he said.

Glass-fronted hives

But he added that not all the bees in a hygienic hive would carry the gene since, although they shared the same mother, they might have numerous different fathers.

Professor Ratnieks said scientists would use glass-fronted hives and observe individually-marked bees to help them work out which bees carried the gene.

A decline in the number of flowers as food sources has led to a poorer environment for honeybees and is likely to have been a major factor in the 75% decrease in the number of hives over the past century.

Scientists will also examine bee "dances" to learn about food sources and hope this research will yield hard data to help landowners decide how to use their land.

The programme has secured £300,000 from Sussex University and £369,000 from public donations.

The government has promised to contribute £2m over five years but Professor Ratnieks said it was not yet clear how this would be spent.


Honeybees contribute around 192m a year to the UK economy through crop pollination

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