The Sussex Plan

Learning More About Bees

Here at Rowse Honey, we are passionate about looking after the health of honey bees in order to protect this wonderful creature and keep the world buzzing. For many years now we’ve been the lead sponsor of the Sussex Plan for Honey Bee Health & Well-Being, which is being carried out in the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects (LASI) at Sussex University. The research scheme is led by honey bee guru Professor Francis Ratnieks; the UK’s only Professor of Apiculture.

Our funding with LASI has been used in several research areas. One is looking into a form of natural defense for honey bees against diseases called “hygienic behaviour”. Only some honey bees exhibit this behaviour and it has been found to be in their genes, passed on by the queen bee. LASI research has shown that this bee behaviour reduces the build-up in the hive of two significant honey bee pests and diseases, the varroa mite and the deformed wing virus. The valuable knowledge that LASI have developed will help beekeepers to breed more hygienic bees, therefore effectively helping honey bees kill off disease in the hive by themselves, giving them a better chance at survival.

The other main area of research is understanding which plants and flowers bees like to forage on the most. If we can understand this, we can try to plant more of the food that bees like, which will help them to survive. Some of the bees’ favourite nectar sources exist in natural hedgerows and patches of wild plants and flowers. As more and more gardens become manicured, lawns become mown and hedgerows get dug up to make room for agriculture, bees are finding it more and more difficult to find the nectar they like most.

If you want to help bees yourself, the Professor and the team at LASI have found that there are certain plants that bees particularly like to feed on. These include;

Marjoram: which attracts all sort of insects from honey bees and bumblebees to butterflies and hover flies. It’s a herb that tastes delicious when added to soups or stews!

Dahlias: which often have open flowers and produce a lot of pollen, which honey bees and other insects love.

Lavender: which attracts mainly bumble bees but also honey bees, other bees, butterflies and hover flies

Borage: an annual plant which grows very quickly from seed, is particularly attractive to honey bees but also to bumble bees and other bees.

Keep your eyes on our Rowse Honey social channels for regular updates on what Rowse are up to with the Professor – and ways you can help save the bees too.


Interview with Professor Ratnieks, 18 October 2018

“Apiculture is the technical term for beekeeping. Although my title is Professor of Apiculture, in fact my work is more than just beekeeping/apiculture. A more accurate, but far too long, title might be “Professor of Apiculture, Honey Bee Biology & Social Insects”. I took up beekeeping, getting my first 10 hives which soon became 20, soon after starting my PhD at Dyce Lab for Honey Bee Studies in the Department of Entomology at Cornell University in the USA.”

“Our work will help beekeepers maintain healthy colonies, understand better the honey bee food supply and how to increase it, and also understand better the honey bee itself.”

“Probably the most fascinating was the discovery of soldier bees. That is, larger worker bees that help defend the colony from robbers. We discovered these soldier bees in a species of stingless bee, which are relatives of honey bees, in Brazil. This particular bee species, locally known as Jatai, has a whole series of fascinating defensive adaptations. Some of the guard bees also hover near the nest entrance, appearing to dance. Having hovering guards enables the colony to detect robbers at a greater distance than if the guards were all sitting at the entrance.”

“The numbers of managed hives has declined in some areas, particularly Europe and North America. Honey bees annually produce about 1.6 billion kg of honey, or about 5 billion jars of honey. They also provide as much pollination as all the other bee species combined. Without the honey bee, many of the foods we eat would be more expensive and we would not have honey. Diseases, changes to the landscape and the available food supply can have a major impact on honey bees, so it’s vital that we continue to improve our understanding of these issues so that we can champion practices that support honey bee health and wellbeing across the world.”

“We have used the financial support from Rowse to carry out practical research aimed in 2 main areas: 1.) improving the control of honey bee diseases by beekeepers; 2) better understanding the honey bee food supply, such as in which months they need more flowers. We call this research “The Sussex Plan for Honey Bee Health & Well Being.”

“It is not so much the individual bee as the colony that we have to look out for. A healthy colony is one in which there is little or no effect of disease, that has an egg-laying queen, brood, and food reserves. The applied research in my lab (the Laboratory of Apiculture & Social Insects) has investigated improved beekeeping methods, honey bee disease control including natural control via hygienic behaviour, and the honey bee food supply. So we have made an important practical contribution.”

“Our applied research is continuing to study disease control by hygienic behaviour and the food supply (flowers). There is still a lot to do.”

“There are many good flower species for bees that can be grown in gardens, with no best species. But one that I can highly recommend is Marjoram. It blooms in summer when the bee food supply is most stretched, it attracts a wide range of insects (honey bees, bumble bees, other wild bees, hover flies, butterflies), and is also easy to grow, blooms for several months, and is beautiful. It is also a useful herb (Marjoram is Oregano).”