Covance Bees

Pollinator ecotoxicology: a honeybee apiary that enhances study performance and helps the environment

With more complex pollinator studies now demanded by regulators of crop protection products, we have an interview with Dr Michael Ramsey, Study Director for Terrestrial Ecotoxicology, about the new Covance research apiary in Huntingdon, UK and the value it brings to research and the local ecosystem.

What has prompted you to establish a research apiary now?

Several things have driven the setup of the apiary, all of which stem from an urgent need to support pollinators in the environment and ensure chemicals have a minimal effect on bee health.

Pollinators are crucial for food production

More than one third of everything that ends up on our dinner plates is there as a direct result of pollination by insect pollinators.1 In fact, around 70 out of the top 100 human food crops, which supply about 90% of the world’s nutrition, are dependent, either directly or indirectly, on pollination by bees.2 It therefore comes as a much greater concern to learn that, in the U.S. alone, the number of honeybee colonies per hectare of crops that require bee pollination has declined by around 70% over the last 70 years.3 Threats from climate change, disease, habitat loss and the increase in the use of toxic crop protection products have all contributed to a steep honeybee population decline. It cannot be stressed enough that there will be serious consequences for humanity if this species goes extinct. Establishment and care of more colonies, like the ones at the Huntingdon Research Campus (HRC) Covance Research Apiary, will help combat this shortfall. In addition, our on-going work in terrestrial ecotoxicology, working with clients and regulators, will help to ensure that chemicals only make it to market after having a full risk assessment as to their effect on honeybee health.

Regulators now have a greater focus on assessing the impact of chemicals on pollinators

Fortunately, governments all over the world are realizing the importance of honeybees and other pollinators on both an ecological and agricultural level; making regulatory changes that are intended to protect them. The UK has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to the protection of honeybees. In 1980, The Bees Act was drawn up, which empowers Ministers to draw up new Orders for the purpose of preventing the introduction into or spreading within Great Britain of pests or diseases which affect bees.

In 2009, the EU regulation on Plant Protection Products (Regulation (EC) No 1107/2009) (which is also law in the UK) provided clear criteria for the approval of active substances, including criteria in relation to honeybees. The regulation stipulates that an active substance, safener or synergist shall only be approved if it is established, following an appropriate risk assessment based on internationally agreed test guidelines, that its proposed use will result in a negligible exposure to honeybees and that any exposure will have no unacceptable acute or chronic effects on colony survival and development, taking into account effects on honeybee larvae and natural honeybee behaviour.

In November 2012, EPA, in collaboration with Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency and the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, presented a quantitative risk assessment process for bees and other insect pollinators to the FIFRA Scientific Advisory Panel. EPA has now begun to employ its new risk assessment framework for bees as part of its regulatory decision-making process for all pesticide chemistries. Plant protection products must at least have been tested by relevant quantitative tier I studies (honeybee adult acute contact toxicity, honeybee adult and/or larvae acute oral toxicity, honeybee adult and/or larvae chronic oral toxicity and honeybee toxicity of residues on foliage). Following that, for compounds where potential risks of concern persist, higher tier assessments may be conducted (tier II semi-field and tier III full-field studies).

The Japanese Agricultural Chemicals Control Act (Act No.82 of 1948) describes the process of the crop protection product registration system in Japan. Recently, there was a major revision of the Agricultural Chemicals Control Act (Act No.53 of 2018) that became effective on the 1st April 2020. As announced in G/SPS/N/JPN/593, the evaluation system for pesticides will be changed in relation to honeybees. It stipulates that if a risk assessment shows that a colony of honeybees is likely to be seriously damaged from exposure to a pesticide used according to manufacturer’s guidelines, then the pesticide will not be registered. Scientific data on toxicity of the pesticide at an individual and at a colony-wide level will need to be taken into account in the assessment.

What studies will the apiary allow you to perform?

The hives are here to provide test subjects for work that we currently do, as well as give us the capacity to develop new field and lab-based methods for studying bee ecotoxicology. We currently offer acute adult and larval honeybee studies (OECD 213/214, 237) and chronic adult honeybee studies (OECD 245). Particularly, having our own honeybee colonies onsite will allow us to validate new and exciting study methods to meet the increasing demand for such studies are the larval chronic toxicity study (OECD 239), a study type that very few other companies have been able to carry out successfully.

Can you describe the apiary setup?

We currently have three colonies of honeybees – that’s over 150,000 individual bees – in the apiary housed in British National Standard hives. They are permanently sited in a clearing within a wooded area on the Covance Huntingdon, UK campus, having full access to forage amongst the trees and flowers on site, as well as the crops on the nearby farm. The bees we keep at the HRC Research Apiary are colonies of Apis mellifera buckfast, or Buckfast Honeybees. The Buckfast bee strain can be traced back to Brother Adam (born Karl Kehrle in 1898 in Germany), who was in charge of beekeeping from 1919 at Buckfast Abbey in Devon. In the early 20th century, he began work selectively breeding between colonies of Ligurian (Italian) and the English black bee, after they showed remarkable qualities for survivability and honey production. This subspecies is sometimes referred to as the beekeeper’s bee. They are non-aggressive, very productive and highly disease resistant.

The apiary will be managed by myself, an experienced beekeeper with a PhD in honeybee science, and the three other members that make up the terrestrial ecotox team: Heather Beattie, Kevin Gilbert and Kim Taylor.

Why is having an onsite honeybee apiary beneficial?

Bees and other pollinators provide what is known as an ecosystem service. As they travel from flower to flower in search of forage to take back to the hive, they end up fertilizing plants by delivering some of the pollen they carry directly into the plant’s ovaries. This not only benefits the agricultural industry, it also benefits the spread of wildflowers and plants, helping around 90% of our wild plants to thrive.4 For this reason, honeybees are considered a “Keystone Species”. Honeybees alone perform around 80% of all pollination worldwide and a single honeybee colony can pollinate 300 million flowers each day.5 The Covance colonies will therefore pollinate upwards of 1 billion flowers each day! This will have a massive positive impact on the local flora and fauna.

Having our own bees will also enhance how we run our studies, increasing efficiency, flexibility and reliability. Before the on-site apiary we would normally source bees from a beekeeper, ordering bees on a study-by-study basis and relying on the availability of an external beekeeper to care for them. With our own bees we have greater flexibility. We can schedule more honeybee-related studies throughout the year as well as validate new and existing methods for studying honeybee health. This will help us innovate to ensure we can answer pressing questions related to the impact of crop protection products on bees and ensure only safe chemicals make it into the market. Having our own research apiary also means a short walk from the hives to the laboratory, meaning the bees arrive in a healthier and less stressed condition than if they had endured prolonged periods in transit. Managing our own honeybee hives means we have full control over the development of each colony, for example: when they were treated for disease, the type of gardening practices undertaken in the vicinity of the hives, how old the queen is and even, to a point, the genetics of the colony. All this information means we have a full record of the life history of the colony for each bee in a trial, which is often unknown information that may be crucial in order to answer questions when undertaking studies.

How does this apiary fit with the wider Covance corporate responsibility?

In line with the company’s ongoing commitment to the 3Rs, having our own beehives as a source of test subjects will mean that only the number of bees required for each study will be taken from the hive, any remaining bees can be returned to their colonies. Having a source of honeybees continuously available will also allow us to refine those studies that we develop and validate so that they require as few test subjects as possible. I will also continue to use my extensive background of automated computational techniques for studying honeybee colonies, to use existing and develop new experimental methods that are as non-invasive as possible.

About the author: Dr Michael Ramsey, Study Director for Terrestrial Ecotoxicology, Covance

Dr Ramsay holds degrees in conservation biology, biology research and a PhD in Mellitology – the development and use of electrical systems for the non-invasive monitoring of honeybee colony status. His focus is to provide directorship for terrestrial ecotoxicology studies by using expertise that spans behavioral ecology, biotremology, animal behavior and cognition, animal communication and quantitative biological research methodologies. He has published widely in high impact journals and spoken at numerous international conferences. He has a passion for bees and has over six years of experience working in a honeybee laboratory.


1.        Klein, A.-M. et al. Importance of pollinators in changing landscapes for world crops. Proc. R. Soc. B Biol. Sci. 274, 303–313 (2007).

2.        United Nations Environment Programme. UNEP Emerging Issues: Global Honey Bee Colony Disorder and Other Threats to Insect Pollinators. (2010).

3.        vanEngelsdorp, D. & Meixner, M. D. A historical review of managed honey bee populations in Europe and the United States and the factors that may affect them. J. Invertebr. Pathol. 103, S80–S95 (2010).

4.        Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. The assessment report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services on pollinators, pollination and food production. (2016).

5.        Rabobank. Plight of the honey bee: why the loss of honey bee colonies may sting global agriculture. (2011).

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