Original press release from the University of East Anglia

Bumblebee on teasel - beeIt may sound counter-intuitive, but crushing up bees into a ‘DNA soup’ could help conservationists understand and even reverse their decline – according to University of East Anglia scientists.

Research published today in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution shows that collecting wild bees, extracting their DNA, and directly reading the DNA of the resultant ‘soup’ could finally make large-scale bee monitoring programmes feasible.

This would allow conservationists to detect where and when bee species are being lost, and importantly, whether conservation interventions are working.

The UK’s National Pollinator Strategy plans a large-scale bee monitoring programme. Traditional monitoring involves pinning individual bees and identifying them under a microscope. But the number of bees needed to track populations reliably over the whole country makes traditional methods infeasible.

This new research shows how the process could become quicker, cheaper and more accurate.

Researchers from UEA worked in partnership with Conservation Grade and the University of Reading in the UK, and the Kunming Institute of Zoology and the China National GeneBank at BGI-Shenzhen in China.

Lead researcher Prof. Douglas Yu, from UEA’s School of Biology, said: “Wild bees play a key role in pollinating wild plants and cultivated crops – maintaining both biodiversity and food production. They are however threatened by habitat loss, pesticides, climate change and disease. Safeguarding wild bee populations and their pollination services is therefore a top priority.

“Developing an efficient long-term monitoring programme to better understand the causes of their decline is one of the goals of DEFRA’s National Pollinator Strategy. This will involve a massive collection of bees across the UK. Traditionally they would be pinned and identified under a microscope, but this is so labour-intensive and error-prone that the resulting data might not be available for years after the collections.

“We need more efficient identification methods if we are to improve our understanding of bee populations and their responses to conservation interventions. The big challenge is that there are hundreds of wild bee species per country, almost 300 in the UK alone. Even with the necessary expertise, it would be impossibly time-consuming to count and identify all the bees in each location – which is where the ‘soup’ comes in.”

The research team took samples of bees from different locations in the Chilterns, the Hampshire Downs and Low Weald. A total of 204 bees were extracted, and the resulting soups put through a DNA sequencer.

Bumblebee - S Abbott - beeThe scientists then used a computer program to map the raw DNA reads against the genomes of bee mitochondria, which are found in nearly every animal cell. Each bee species has a distinct genome, allowing the team to identify which species of bees had been present in each sample.

The process did not require taxonomic experts and still proved to be more accurate. Also, by skipping the DNA-amplification step known as PCR, the method was able to estimate the biomass contributed by each species, which opens the way to tracking population trajectories.

Prof. Yu said: “The number of bees that end up in one of my soups is absolutely tiny compared with the populations being studied. At present, bees are collected and monitored using traditional methods, which are slow, expensive, and there is a lot more room for error. A computer programme doesn’t have an opinion. It is or it isn’t a Bombus lucorum bumblebee, and all the evidence supporting an identification is publicly available.”

“Insect soup is a sensitive thermometer for the state of nature. And large-scale bee monitoring programmes would really benefit from this type of DNA sequencing. The method can easily be scaled up to track more species, like the 1000 or so total pollinating insects in the UK. We can find out where species diversity or abundance is highest – for example in the countryside or in city parks– and how species diversity is affected by farming methods – for example, to see if habitat set-asides support more bees. Species biodiversity at any given site can be revealed in a single drop of soup. It’s a technique that shaves weeks, months, years off traditional ecological methods, saves money and spares the need for tons of taxonomic expertise. We’re trying to speed up ecological investigation on a monumental scale.”

‘High-throughput monitoring of wild bee diversity and abundance via mitogenomics’ is published in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution on July 6, 2015. The research was funded via studentships from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), and with support from Conservation Grade.



1/ For more information, a copy of the paper, or to arrange an interview, please contact Lisa Horton in the UEA press office on +44 (0)1603 592764 or email l.horton@uea.ac.uk.

2/ The University of East Anglia (UEA) is among the top 1% of universities globally (Times Higher Education World Rankings 2014-15) and placed 10th in the UK for the quality of its research output (Research Excellence Framework 2014). Also known for its outstanding student experience, it has achieved a Top 10 rating in the National Student Survey every year since the survey began. UEA is a leading member of the Norwich Research Park – one of Europe’s largest concentrations of researchers in the fields of environment, health and plant science. The city of Norwich boasts more highly cited scientists than any UK city outside London, Oxford and Cambridge. www.uea.ac.uk.

UEA’s School of Biological Sciences is ranked 1st in the National Student Survey 2014 and achieved major gain in the rankings of all its research areas in the latest Research Excellence Framework (REF 2014). 80% of research output and 100% of its research environment and research impact was judged to be world-leading or internationally excellent. www.uea.ac.uk/bio

3/ Conservation Grade’s ‘Fair to Nature’ approach enables food manufacturers and farmers to cost-effectively adopt sustainable management practices, designed to reverse declines in farmland biodiversity.  Conservation Grade invests funds in research seeking to improve monitoring and evaluation of farmland biodiversity.  www.conservationgrade.org.

4/ The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is the UK’s main agency for funding and managing world-class research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. It coordinates some of the world’s most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on earth, and much more. NERC receives around £320 million a year from the government’s science budget, which it uses to fund independent research and training in universities and its own research centres. www.nerc.ac.uk

5/ The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Its aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond. Funded by Government, BBSRC invested over £484M in world-class bioscience in 2013-14. It supports research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people it funds are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Its investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk

6/ The University of Reading is one of the world’s leading centres for research into agriculture and the environment. The Centre for Agri-Environmental Research (CAER) studies the impact of ecology on farming and food, with a strong international reputation for research into bees and pollinating insects. Reading is ranked as the top UK university for the study of agriculture (QS World Rankings by Subject 2015), and fourth in the UK for research power in the REF 2014 for Agriculture, Food and Veterinary Science. www.reading.ac.uk

7/ BGI was founded in 1999 with the vision of using genomics to benefit science and well-being of humans and has since become the largest genomic organization in the world. With a focus on research and applications in the healthcare, agriculture, conservation, and environmental fields, BGI has a proven track record of innovative, high profile research, which has generated over 1,000 publications, many in top-tier journals such as Nature and Science. 

8/ The China National GeneBank (Shenzhen), known as CNGB, is a national nonprofit institute supported by the government of China. CNGB is devoted to the comprehensive collection of biological resources (including specimens from humans, and other animals, plants and microorganisms) preservation, bioinformatics data generation and a global network establishment to promote information sharing and exchange. It operates through collaborative activities between universities, hospitals and scientific institutes that share an interest in biobanking, resource utilization and bioinformatics.