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Scientists map the flight of the bumblebee

BUMBLEBEES have an incredible homing instinct that allows them to find their way home from up to eight miles away, according to research that aims to aid efforts to save the British bumblebee.

Bumblebees are being dropped off at famous landmarks in North East England by the Newcastle University researchers, who then observe if they can find their way back to a nest on campus.

Early results show the bees, which are tagged with tiny identification numbers in the laboratory, have flown back from the Metro Centre and the Angel of the North (three miles away, or 5 kilometres) and the Tyne Bridge and Manors Metro station (one mile, or 1.5k).

However, the record flight was from a garden centre in Heddon on the Wall in the Tyne Valley - some eight miles or 13km from their nest.

The researchers have found it is only the worker bees which make their way back - they suspect the queen bees find shelter elsewhere. The results are surprising because scientific literature says the bumblebee they are studying - a common species called Bombus terrestris - travels only 5km for its food.

The project aims to find out how far the bees can travel to get their food and if certain environments are trickier to navigate than others. This knowledge will ultimately help with conservation strategies that may involve adapting landscapes to create optimum habitats for bees.

There are 25 species of British bumblebee but their numbers have been declining in the last 50 years due to dramatic changes in the landscape caused by intense farming.

Bees are a crucial part of wildlife communities - known as ecosystems - because they pollinate plants in their search for their food, nectar and pollen from flowers. Worldwide, up to 40 per cent of the world's food production is due to pollination by wild bees, which include the bumblebee.

Steph O'Connor, who has just graduated from Newcastle University with a Wildlife Biology degree, is working on the project with insect specialists Dr Mark O'Neill and Dr Gordon Port, who is also a senior lecturer with the University's Division of Biology.

Steph, who hopes to continue her studies for a research degree, has spent several weeks attracting the attention of passers-by as she hovers near the hive - in a garden wall on campus - catching the bees in a large net.

She said: “The current scientific literature shows that bees normally forage within 5km, and this is probably correct. However, the findings of our research are intriguing, because it shows the bees can navigate their way home from further away than this.”

Scientists are unsure how bumblebees navigate. Vision is thought to be most Important, helping them to fly in straight lines and to use landmarks as clues. At very close range (no more than a metre or two) they use odour to find their way around.

Co-researcher, Dr Mark O'Neill, is plotting the bees' journeys using a computer programme, allowing him to build up a pattern of flight paths from different places. He said: “We are trying to find out more about how bees forage, or look for their food. We're particularly interested to see if they find certain environments easier to navigate.

“For example, do the bees find it easier to get home from the built-up urban environment that the Metro Centre occupies - or are they more comfortable navigating the green fields out in the Tyne Valley? All this is useful information for conservationists who are formulating strategies to prevent the bumblebee from decline.”

The project, which is funded by Newcastle University, is in its early stages but future hopes are to monitor variables such as the weather and its effect on the bees' homing capabilities.

Claire Jordan | alfa
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