Humans could learn much about health, public transport and peaceful living by observing the behaviour of bees, the leader of Britain's first bee-keeping research lab has claimed.

The sophisticated societies built up by the highly-social insects are to be studied by students at Sussex University in a new ยฃ250,000 laboratory of apiculture.

The country's first bee-keeping research lab is to be led by Professor Francis Ratnieks, a leading authority on honeybee biology and the only professor of apiculture in the UK.

Prof Ratnieks's research will focus on honeybees, but will also look at stingless bees, wasps and ants.

"Humans are relative newcomers to social living compared to bees," Prof Ratnieks said.

"We could learn much from social insects that have lived in complex groups for tens of millions of years. Insect societies face many of the problems faced by human society, including maintaining public health, organising efficient information and transport systems and maintaining harmony in the group."

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Bees have lived in social groups longer than humans

The main areas covered by the course are: how bees and insects organise themselves, how they resolve conflicts over who works and who breeds and how to improve beekeeping practices. It will also look at reducing bee diseases and developing breeding and conservation projects.

The laboratory has been sited near a wood and includes ten beehives, a workshop for building and storing hives, and several apiaries.

Professor Jonathan Bacon, dean of life sciences at the university, said: "This greatly expands our existing strengths in social-insect studies at Sussex and makes us the UK leader in this area.

"Sussex is a great place for studying honeybees and social insects. We are located near the coast and the weather here means that we can study bees most of the year."

He said the number of social insects in the area was high, with many species living wild on the university campus or nearby.

The research lab has been launched at a time when beekeepers have expressed concerns about the lack of Government investment in research. They have argued that beekeeping is vital to the economy and environment but it is threatened by disease, pests and environmental degradation.

Honeybees pollinate crops worth around ยฃ165 million in the UK each year in addition to producing honey and wax.