UC Riverside researchers will lead a four-campus network focused on boosting and preserving honeybee populations to ensure the pollinating creatures are sustained for the good of agricultural crops worldwide, it was announced Thursday.

“This will become one of the largest honeybee health networks in the country,” UCR entomology Professor Boris Baer said. “I’m very excited about so many different kinds of bee expertise joining forces through this project.”

The new network has been enabled through a $900,000 grant from the University of California Office of the President, and in addition to UCR staff, will include researchers from the UC Davis, Merced and San Diego campuses, according to officials.

Central to the effort will be the UCR Riverside Center for Integrative Bee Research.

The group’s objective is fortifying honeybee populations, which have been rapidly declining. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in the last six years, colonies domestically have dropped 50%. The Riverside County Office of the Agricultural Commissioner has a contract with the state to monitor area honeybee apiaries and take steps necessary to preserve them.

The health network will use three methods to promote honeybee protection. The first is a laboratory-tested breeding program, which will identify “bees that are better able to cope with environmental stress,” Baer said.

Another approach will involve developing medicines and treatments that prevent bees from becoming weak from pesticides and parasites. That process could result in molecular strengthening of bees’ immune systems, officials said.

Lastly, researchers intend to flesh out ways of detecting when bee hives are deteriorating, using listening devices, or beekeepers’ sense of smell.

“We know bee queens have a special pheromone they give off when they’re hungry or dying, and these can be traced,” Baer said. “We are essentially building `electronic veterinarians.’ We’ll develop innovative tools needed to effectively combat declining honeybee health, keep our food affordable and safeguard the livelihood of those working with bees.”

Honeybees pollinate cabbage, cotton, mustard, turnip and a range of other crops.

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