Scientists from London’s Queen Mary University are today releasing 500 bees, each with its own personal licence plate – a small, weather-resistant tag – in order to track the flights of bees through London.

Several hundred more bees will then be released each week for the coming month. If people – or “citizen scientists” as the researchers call them - spot one of the bees, they are asked to record the bee’s number and take a photo for a competition. Prizes of £100 Amazon gift vouchers will be awarded for the best photo of a QMUL-tagged bee on a flower, for the highest number of QMUL-tagged bees spotted and for the best photo of a London bee-friendly garden (as judged by the research team).

The bee release is part of the London Pollinator Project, which aims to understand the bees’ preferred patches in London and in particular their favourite flowers.

Insect ‘licence plates’ to help scientists track flights of the bumble bee

"The fact that the bees have individual 'licence plates' will allow anyone interested to develop their own science project, and ask scientific questions about the behaviour of bees,” said Professor Lars Chittka, project leader.

“For example, citizen scientists might be intrigued to see the same bee return to their balcony and might record when during the day, how many times and which flowers they prefer.

“They may be curious about what these regular visits tell us about a bee’s memory for places and why certain bees prefer particular colour flowers.”

Insect ‘licence plates’ to help scientists track flights of the bumble bee

Numbers of bees have been dropping dramatically in recent years, with factors such as diseases, pesticides and decline in crops being suggested as reasons for this decline.

The London Pollinator Project hopes to engage members of the public in conservation projects.

“We hope that the observation of number-tagged bees in people's gardens will raise an appreciation of insects as individuals,” added Professor Chittka.

“And once you view animals as individuals rather than anonymous entities, you develop a connection with them, and a deeper understanding of why it's important to assist with the conservation of threatened animals.”

Photo credits: Dr Joseph Woodgate