If you were in east London this morning, you might have seen something pretty weird.
Five hundred bumblebees — each with a unique numbered "license plate" glued to its back — were released from a rooftop in the city.
It marks the start of the London Pollinator Project, led by Queen Mary University of London. Over the next month, hundreds more tagged bees will be released across the city.
Scientists are hoping that the plates will allow them to keep track of the insects as they move around, so that they can find out more about their urban habitats and behaviors.
But more importantly, they hope that the license plates will encourage better relationships between the people and the bees of London.
“We want to encourage people to view bees as individuals, not just as little machines or pests,” says Dr. Clint Perry, who is coordinating the project.
“They have memories and preferences for specific gardens. Hopefully with these little license plates on their backs, people might be able to … form a little emotional attachment to them when they come back, and miss them when they are gone.”
Perry hopes that the tags will cause a “cultural shift” in the way that Londoners interact with bees. In particular, he wants to see more bee-friendly flowers being planted in gardens and parks around the city.
Bee populations around the world are in decline. In the UK, two species are now extinct, and many others are under severe threat.
Scientists have raised concerns over the impact that falling bee populations will have on ecosystems and agricultural production, as many plants and crops rely heavily on the insects for pollination.
Perry says that the plight of bees was primarily caused by urbanization, so it makes sense for cities to contribute to finding a solution.
“The reason bees are in decline is because of urban development and intensive agricultural practices,” he says. “We are thinking that the people within the city can balance out this loss of resources and wildflowers by planting in their own green spaces.”