Pheromones, Pathogens and Pesticides: How do these interact to affect the health and productivity of social and solitary bees?

Honeybees, bumblebees and other bee species are facing a multitude of threats from disease, pesticide exposure and loss of habitat. These threats have resulted in alarming declines in bee numbers, which is a concern for food security, biodiversity and conservation.

Probably the best known and arguably the most important bee species is the honeybee, Apis mellifera.  This species and the bumblebee are the most extensively managed pollinator species globally and much of the research on bees has focussed on these two species.  These bees are both ‘eusocial’ – they live in colonies with hundreds to thousands of individuals.  In each colony, there is only one reproductively active female who is responsible for the majority of reproduction and workers carry out most other colony tasks.

Pheromones are crucially important in all social bees and act as a as primary means of communication regulating a range of behaviours in the hive.  There is substantial overlap in the behaviours modulated by pheromones in the hive and the sub-lethal effects of pesticides e.g. foraging activity, sucrose sensitivity and reproduction leading to the novel hypothesis that some of the sub-lethal effects of pesticides are modulated by pheromones produced within the colony. Communication is not only central to the function of social bee colonies but also for mating and other intra-species communication in solitary bees.

The UK is also home to 250 species of solitary bees – these bees spend the majority of their lives on their own, only getting together to mate, and individual females forage, lay eggs and collect provisions for their offspring.

This project will combine behavioural ecology with molecular approaches to understand how pheromones, pesticides and common diseases affect social and solitary bees using a combination of laboratory and field-studies. This project will use solitary bees (e.g. the red mason bee) and social bees like honeybees and bumblebees to address this question.

Image shows a honeybee apiary (top left), honeybee workers surrounding a queen (top right), a bumble bee on a flower (bottom left) and a solitary bee (the red mason bee) resting on a leaf (bottom right).

This project has practical importance. The honeybee is intensively managed for pollination of crops contributing £651 million to the British economy annually and is incredibly important for the security of our food supply. Understanding how to control pest species without harming beneficial insects, like pollinator species, is of paramount importance. Understanding more about how social insects and solitary bees function will assist with these goals. Ultimately it is hoped that this knowledge about the fundamental biology of these important insects will also help inform conservation efforts aimed at maintaining bee biodiversity in the UK and globally.


For details please contact Dr Elizabeth Duncan (