THE BLOG

UK Garden Stores Protect Bees: Bees Reciprocate with Innovations

02/05/2013 03:35 pm ET | Updated Apr 07, 2013

Recently, Britain's biggest gardening chains: Homebase, B&Q and Wickes removed products containing neonictinoid insecticides because of a European Food & Safety Authority report implicating neonictinoids as one of the main culprits in declining bee populations around the globe.

The European Union has proposed that its member states stop using neonictinoids including sprays and prohibiting sales of seeds treated with these chemicals. The three insecticides in particular identified are clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam. France, Germany and Slovenia have banned them. Hoembase, B&Q and Wickes have removed products from their shelves containing these bee-killing poisons. In America, according to the Xerces Society's report some commercial neonictinoid products available at garden centers are 120 times higher than those applied on agricultural fields.

We need healthy bees, globally. They pollinate the lion's share of over 235,000 flowering plants on Earth including most of the fruit, vegetables, beef and dairy that we eat; 2.2 billion pounds of honey, annually; 44 million pounds of bees wax, annually; potent Apis medicines fighting arthritis, fibromyalgia and Multiple Sclerosis; and bees are inspiring the next generation of innovations in an exciting, profitable and job-rich new branch of applied science called biomimicry.

Heidi Hermann a UK shamanic beekeeper and co-founder of The Natural Beekeeping Trust is spearheading a movement to help restore honeybee health enabling them to naturally fend-off Varroa mites - including strengthening the recently re-discovered UK black honeybees thought to be wiped-out by a mite carrying 'Isle of Wight Disease' just prior to World War I.

Hermann recognizes that bee colonies have distinct personalities; she advocates a hands-off approach to beekeeping. Moreover, swarm suppression - whereby conventional beekeepers prevent bees from leaving the hive and taking honey with them - is wrong and she believes has contributed to the decline of bees.

Hermann and others are proposing a new circular hive, hand-made from rye-straw called a 'Sun Hive.' They are a womb-like object that mimics a natural bee colony or city of a hundred thousand workers, which would live in an opening or hollow within a tree.

Sun Hives are suspended at least 8 feet above the ground, receiving more warmth and light compared to traditional square, ground level commercial beehives. Sun Hives, however, require over-head shelter, protection from inclement weather.

The Natural Beekeeping Trust and Hermann provide excellent tips for beekeepers wanting to go back to Nature and obviate high mortality rates that most are currently experiencing across the UK and worldwide.

Hermann recommends primarily keeping bees because they are crucial pollinators not as honey producers. She suggests filling your garden with nectar and pollen rich plants that provide an array of flowers during both the spring and summer. Don't use any chemicals.

Allow bees to overwinter on their own honey instead of sugar or corn syrup substitutes. Harvest honey only in springtime, if at all.

Maintain the nest scent and warmth of the hive by opening, infrequently. In addition, she's a strong proponent of allowing bees to reproduce naturally by swarming, which incidentally breaks the Varroa mite cycle. Lastly, Hermann discourages smoking bees as it causes them undue stress.

Healthy bees enable scientists the privilege of discovering elegant solutions to human problems through innovations. In fact, honeybees are inspiring the next generation of unmanned aerial vehicles that can fly and land without assistance of radar, GPS or human hand.

Professor Mandyam Srinivasan of the University of Queensland observed that bees possess exceptional navigational and piloting skills, which greatly interested both NASA and Boeing (Australia).

How is it that bees can fly precisely through small holes without colliding into boundaries? Srinivasan discovered that bees use a technique called optic flow. That is, bees calculate how far away they are from an object by measuring how fast that object appears to be moving. If an object seems to be moving quickly - it means that the bee is close to it.

Bees flying into a confined space - like a tunnel - balance the optic flow by ensuring the flight path is exactly in the middle of the opening.

It may sound like a no-brainer, but to accomplish this precise feat is precision at its finest. Furthermore, as soon as these optic results were published modern robotics adopted the exact principles to navigate robots down corridors.

Visual navigation is the key to how bees land, safely. As bees approach a landing they adjust their speed so that the ground appears to be moving at a constant speed.

Bees are remarkable biological autopilots. Bees don't measure how far they are from the ground. Airplanes, on the other hand, require state of the art lasers and sonar to accurately determine the distance from the ground in order to land, automatically.

Bees don't calculate how fast they are traveling because they visually measure the speed of the image on the ground - holding it constant on their eyes - adjusting flight speed so that the image also remains constant in their eyes. The closer they get the slower their speed.

It's a splendid way to land aircrafts. Several prototype aircrafts are using the bee-inspired optic flow principles to both fly and land, successfully. Within a decade commercial airplanes will be using the bee-inspired landing technique. By the way, this technology offers a promising future for unmanned space probing crafts exploring Mars and elsewhere. In the meantime, bee-inspired vision will initially be used as a back-up system and for collision avoidance in commercial aircrafts.

Keeping our bees healthy is of paramount importance for inspiring new technologies to solve problems in space exploration, and ultimately ensuring the health, wellbeing and longevity of our species.

Earth Dr Reese Halter is a broadcaster, biologist and author of The Incomparable Honeybee.