Colleagues meet at the Insignia plenary meeting in Almeria

Meetings as the annual plenary meeting are about more than data exchange and scientific discussion; they are also about meeting colleagues, social interaction, interests in colleague’s family life and relaxation in eating and drinking together. The early birds that arrived already on Sunday 12th January were invited for a tapas experience in Almeria city and both meeting evenings were great experiences with Spanish fish meals, regional culinary highlights, Spanish wine, and Portuguese port. In the coffee- and lunch breaks there was time for chats in the sun. This socializing, chatting and having a good time is the basis for mutual respect which, together with full commitment to the well-being of the honeybee and the interests in the environment and its interaction with the bees, form the fundament for a good functioning team; and a good functioning team we are!

Sjef van der Steen


The plenary meeting in Almeria, group at work

At the University of Almeria, Amadeo Fernandez-Alba and his team hosted 24 scientists from 10 countries for the plenary Insignia meeting on 14th and 15th January 2020. In a great ambiance, the results of the 2019 study were presented, discussed and comprised into the 2020 protocol, to be tested in 9 countries in 81 apiaries. The results presented clearly showed a difference between the four (4) pesticide residue matrices, the two biological matrices: trapped pollen, beebread, and the two non-biological non-invasive passive sampling matrices: Beehold tube and the in-hive APIStrip. The latter proved to have the best binding capacities for the number of pesticides. Trapped pollen proved to be a very poor matrix for this purpose. Beebread and the Beehold tube functioned in between. For pollen diversity, three matrices were tested: trapped pollen, beebread, and the Beehold tube. Comparison between classic microscope palynology and ITS2 pollen metabarcoding revealed that ITS2 pollen metabarcoding results are comparable outcomes on family level. For pollen diversity, the three (3) matrices gave similar results. Based on the 2019 results it was decided to apply in the 2020 study the best pesticide residue matrix APIStrip and the most practical pollen matrix: trapped pollen for ITS2 metabarcoding. Insignia is about protocol development for citizen science study. The interaction between scientist and apiculturist has been studied in a sociological study. Non surprisingly it can be concluded that citizen scientist involvement is based on personal interests like participating in a scientific study or interest in the environment primarily on mutual respect between the scientist and beekeeper and mutual concern for the well-being of the honeybee.

All the aspects, from the interaction between scientist and beekeeper and instruction workshops to practical issues as best exposure location, matrix storage, and transport were point by point discussed and agreed. This will result in an updated instruction/ picture manual for all participating beekeepers.

Sjef van der Steen


Follow your scientist – The INSIGNIA project

Last week note nr 2. “Follow your scientist – the INSIGNIA project”  by Flemming Vejsnæs was sent out to the stakeholders. it draws the attention to our social media and website to inform and to enhance the cooperation and commitment of the stakeholders to the INSIGNIA project. Soon similar notes will be sent to the beekeeper’s journals in the INSIGNIA countries. More notes will follow

Flemming Vejsnæs,  Sjef van der Steen 


Our social media
our website

Sample analysis – Greek Lab BPI

After samples’ arrival, they are all coded and then analysed or stored in the freezer till the day of analysis. For their preparation, extraction and clean-up steps are taking place, to separate the analytes from interfering compounds and obtain the optimum results. For the quantification of the pesticide residues analysed, both liquid and gas chromatography combined with tandem mass spectrometry is used. The last stage of this procedure is the data analysis and the evaluation of the results.

Lab material and equipment used by the lab staff (us), are presented in the following pictures. In particular, in the picture on the left, 50mL falcons containing salts for the clean-up step of the samples and 15mL falcons containing samples after the clean-up step are shown in the back and front part of the picture, respectively. Vials to be filled and vials ready for injection in LC-MS/MS and GC-MS/MS are also presented in the following pictures.

Effrosyni Zafeiraki

Metabarcoding of pollen

At the IPB (Instituto Politécnico de Bragança in Portugal), the botanical origin of the Insignia pollen is determined molecularly. The botanic origin of pollen is determined by its DNA.

As all living organisms, all plants have DNA, and all plant DNA has an ITS2 (internal transcribed spacer) fragment. This ITS2 fragment is a specific part of the DNA strand and is unique for a plant family/ genus/ species. Of every pollen grain in the homogenised subsamples collected from a pollen trap, beebread and Beehold tube, the Insignia pollen matrices, the ITS2 fragment is isolated and multiplicated to millions of copies by an in vitro reaction called PCR.

In the isolation- and multiplication process an Index molecule is coupled to each ITS2 fragment. This Index is unique for a sample. For example, all pollen collected in a trap in front of hive 1 on a particular sampling date has the same Index and of hive 2, another Index. After coupling the Index, the order of DNA bases (G: guanine, T: thymine, A: adenine and C: cytosine) of each ITS2 DNA fragment is determined by using a technology commonly known as next-generation sequencing (NGS). The process of using a short fragment of a specific gene (in this case ITS2) to identify organisms (in this case plants from pollen) is known as “DNA barcoding”. Because a pollen sample collected in a trap combines pollens originating from many different plant species, then identification by DNA barcoding is called “DNA metabarcoding”. This DNA bases order or barcode is unique for a plant family/genus/species.

To determine the relative abundances of different pollen sources in mixed pollen pellets collected by bees, the number of sequence reads is recorded in the next generation sequencing (NGS) process. Each “read” is a specific sequence of DNA bases of ITS2 DNA fragment obtained in the multiplication process, and the more a specific pollen source (e.g. Brassica napus) is present in the mixed-pollen sample, the more reads of the ITS2 fragment of the specific source will be produced. Consequently, the more reads this specific ITS2 fragments have, the higher the relative abundance.

This process from DNA isolation from the pollen until the sequencing of the DNA bases is time consuming compared to microscopic morphological determination. However, several hundreds of samples (= many thousands of ITS2’s) are analysed simultaneously in one sequence run, which makes it time-saving. The number of samples that can be sequenced simultaneously depends on the number of unique Indices available.

In microscopical determination, several hundreds of pollen grains are examined. In metabarcoding millions of pollen grains are examined. As for microscopical analyses, a reference database of ITS2 sequences is needed for comparison and as for microscopic analysis, the richer the reference database is, the better the determination. The more plant species and the higher the geographical coverage, the richer the reference database. In addition to the molecular determination of the botanic origin of pollen, in the Insignia study, the ITS2 European reference database will be enriched.

The photo of the screen with the coloured lines shows the result of sequencing each colour represents a DNA base. The second photo shows the microcentrifuge tubes with the DNA extracts. The third photo shows the ITS2 fragment multiplicated by PCR. The fourth photo is the IPB team working in Insignia and me.


Sjef van der Steen

INSIGNIA at the ICPPR congress in Bern 23, 24, 25 October 2019

Every 2 years the Bee Protection group of the International Commission for Plant-Pollinator Relationships (ICPPR) organises a congress about the hazard of pesticides to bees. Bee researchers from academia, contract labs, industry, governmental institutions, EFSA, organisations involved in bee protection and conservation and student meet there to present and discuss new developments and draft methods and outcomes in assessing the hazard of pesticides to bees both for first to higher tier studies, current hazard assessments are evaluated and new guidelines are presented. This Bee Protection group is both stakeholders of the Insignia pilot study and a target international body to present Insignia. There was a lot of interest in our study, particularly for the non-biological passive samplers. It took some effort to explain the role of the honeybee colony in this study, being not the major subject but the data collecting tool. Contact is made with similar monitoring studies, working groups and EFSA for cooperation and data exchange. Both cooperation and data exchanges are subject currently discussed with the EC-DG SANTE and the consortium. It has shown the need for data of pesticide residues in the environment and the role of the honeybee-colony-tool fulfill in this hot topic.

Sjef van der Steen
coordinator Insignia


Insignia announced in Belgium

Belgium is one of the countries in which nine apiaries will be selected for the 2020 trials. The Flemish beekeepers were informed about the Insignia project in October 2019. Beekeeping in Flanders is much more developed than the front page of the magazine suggests. It is a giant step from making straw skeps to applying honeybee colonies as a monitoring tool for pesticides. An application of the honeybee, completely non-existing when the straw skeps were developed some centuries ago. The big difference between beekeeping with the skep and the Insignia study is that bees in the skep were killed to harvest the honey and that the Insignia project aims to result in a  non-invasive (= no bees sampled and killed) citizen scientist sampling protocol; a progress in bee- welfare and bee research.

Science with communication

How easy can science be on your own, no protests, no objections, bright ideas and always being right? However that’s not science, that is vanity.

Science can only blossom and flourish in cooperation and respectful communication with each other. That is why the GoTo Telemeetings occupy a prominent place in the Insignia consortium. The course of the pilot study, new ideas, results clarification and evaluations and any issue of whatever importance are discussed in these meetings. First in small groups of specialists in the consortium to be broadened up with more subjects-involved participants in the course of the subject.
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