Can bees meet their nutritional needs in the current UK landscape?

Lead Research Organisation: Newcastle University
Department Name: Institute of Neuroscience

Abstract

An important but often overlooked reason that bee populations are in decline is likely to be that these important pollinators can no longer obtain adequate nutrition as a result of changes in land management practices worldwide. This proposal will investigate how honeybees and bumblebees meet their nutritional needs and will also examine the nutritional value of pollen and nectar of selected UK plant species with the aim of predicting when bee pollinators in the UK experience nutritional short-falls. Insects, and in particular bee species, are responsible for the sexual reproduction of a highly diverse range of plants, many of which are agricultural crops. Over 39 crops in the UK alone depend upon insect pollinators for fruit and seed production. In natural habitats, a colony of 'generalist' bees such as honeybees will visit the flowers of potentially hundreds of different plant species to find food. In the past 50 years, our landscape has changed to accommodate modern farming practices that cultivate large fields of single crop species. Nutritional balance becomes extremely important in monoculture situations: honeybee colonies used for pollination services have little or no choice of food and limited access to natural vegetation.. Ironically, while crops like oilseed rape may provide vast expanses of pollen and nectar when they are in flower, we do not know if these floral resources provide adequate nutrition for bees. In fact, species like honeybees may be obliged to forage for pollen and nectar from a variety of plants to obtain adequate nutrition, but this has never been established. Using a sophisticated modelling approach that has been developed to study nutrition in many other animals, we will experimentally determine the ratio of protein and carbohydrates that adult workers and larval bees need to perform at their best. We will also examine how changes in environmental conditions, infection with pathogens, exposure to pesticides, or consumption of toxins affect a bee's nutritional needs. Honeybees and bumblebees learn to associate floral traits with food and so can exploit flowers that are currently in bloom. By placing bees under circumstances where they are forced to eat unbalanced foods, we will test whether malnourishment causes bees to learn to select foods that complete their diet. Honeybees are social insects that communicate information about floral resources to other workers within the hive via the 'dance language' in order to rapidly exploit available food sources. We will also examine whether nutritional imbalance causes bees to dance more vigorously for nutritionally complete foods. An important component of our proposed research will use a series of biochemical analyses to determine the nutritional value of pollen and nectar of important bee-pollinated plants. We will focus our investigation on important UK crops (e.g. oilseed rape, apples, peas), plants found in natural UK landscapes including invasive species (e.g. clover, heather, Himalayan balsalm), and plants found in urban gardens (e.g. mint, rhododendrons, cucumbers). Combining this information with a careful analysis of the existing scientific literature, we will construct an online database of the nutritional value of pollen and nectar of flowering plants in order to share this information with the general public. When combined with the experiments that determine optimal bee nutrition, we anticipate that the research described in our proposal will aid beekeepers, farmers, land managers, and scientists in thwarting bee decline worldwide, by providing a sound scientific basis for designing strategies to ensure that bees have access to sufficient nutrients.

Technical Summary

During the last 50 years, plant diversity in the UK has been reduced in some areas by as much as 75%. An important but often overlooked factor that could be playing a leading role in bee population declines is the fact that bees may not have access to sufficient nutrition from existing floral resources. Nutrition is vitally important for animals: poor nutrition has direct fitness consequences including increased susceptibility to parasites and pathogens, fewer resources for rearing offspring, and a reduced ability to thermoregulate or metabolise ingested toxins. We know surprisingly little about the nutritional needs of bees or how these needs are met by foraging on nectar and pollen. The research proposed here will be the first to use the nutritional models of Simpson and Raubenheimer (1993) to determine the protein-to-carbohydrate ratios (intake targets) of adult foragers and larvae of honeybees (Apis mellifera) and bumblebees (Bombus terrestris). We will examine in detail the conditions under which intake targets change, such as infection with pathogens, exposure to pesticides, changes in temperature, or increased demands of brood. We will also examine how nutritional imbalance affects foraging decisions, by testing whether bees are more likely to learn and remember floral traits associated with nutrients that complete their diets. We will also examine how nutritional imbalance affects the dance language of bees, predicting that bees will dance more vigorously for food sources that complete their diet. An important facet of this research will also be the biochemical analysis of protein, amino acids, carbohydrates, fatty acids, and toxins found in pollen and nectar from important crops, as well as native, invasive, and horticultural plant species in the UK landscape. These data will be incorporated into an online database that will also include a meta-analysis of the existing literature on the nutritional qualities of pollen and nectar.

Planned Impact

The output from research described will have a positive long-term impact on agricultural crop production and beekeeping while advancing our understanding of why pollinators are currently in worldwide decline. Much of the world's food production comes from plants which depend on pollinators for out-crossing and fertilization. Understanding whether or not bees can meet their nutritional needs by feeding on the nectar and pollen provided by crop plants will allow beekeepers and farmers to predict when pollinators are likely to experience nutritional shortfalls. When crops do not provide sufficient sources of nutrition, our research will equip beekeepers with the knowledge needed to provide the appropriate nutritional supplements to maintain bee health. Our research will also provide information valuable for developing an artificial honeybee diet for periods when colonies are building during brood rearing or in preparation for commercial pollination or over-wintering. Thus, the data we generate are likely to have a large and lasting impact on this industry and on crop pollination worldwide. We also expect that industries servicing the beekeeping industry that make food supplements (e.g. FeedBee) will greatly benefit from knowing the intake targets of bees and the nutritional value of floral resources. For example, pollen is often used as a supplemental food; determining the nutritional value of several types of pollen would allow companies which sell pollen supplements to use pollen types which provide the best nutritional value instead of a common mix of pollen from many plant species. For the same reasons, we also anticipate that our research will have an impact on bumblebee husbandry for pollination services. Our research also has important implications for determining the impacts of other factors on bee decline, such as diseases and pesticides. We anticipate that future studies conducted by our group and by other international groups of scientists will further test the importance of nutritional imbalance in bee susceptibility to diseases, parasites, and toxicity caused by exposure to pesticides. Furthermore, an important and long-lasting outcome of our research will be the information about the necessity for plant diversity in providing adequate floral resources for wild bee populations. We expect that compiling information about pollen and nectar quality of naturally-occurring UK plant species will aid those engaged in wild bee conservation and land-management strategies by allowing them to foster habitats with complementary floral resources for bees. Our research, therefore, could potentially impact policies aimed at issues as diverse as the control of invasive plant species and the improvement of plant diversity in land bordering urban and agricultural areas. The general public has a keen interest in bees, as demonstrated by the response to the publication of the government's support for the Insect Pollinators Initiative. Some of the main beneficiaries of our research will be the general public via educational outreach. Using existing resources at our respective institutions of Moorbank Botanic Garden at Newcastle University and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, we expect to develop several initiatives aimed inspiring interest in the way that pollinators obtain nutrition from flowering plants. This includes approaches to public engagement from involving primary school children in projects to developing visual displays such as observation hives and 'bee gardens' within the gardens which visitors can access.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description The main aim of this proposal was to apply the Geometric Framework for Nutrition developed by Steve Simpson and David Raubenheimer to understand the nutrition of bees. We used a 2-pronged approach: we fed chemically defined diets to cohorts of worker honeybees in the lab and measured their food consumption under specific conditions. By varying the ratio of protein to carbohydrate in food, we were able to measure the extent to which bees regulated their intake of these macronutrients. We found that foraging worker honeybees require a diet very high in carbohydrate, whereas young adult honeybees that mainly engage in nursing within colonies required a diet much higher in protein. Bees that were fed too much protein or essential amino acids had shorter lifespans. We also found similar results for foraging-age worker bumblebees: they were intolerant of diets high in protein, and had significant dietary requirements for carbohydrates. In addition, when bees were placed under stress from temperature or toxins in diet, they were more apt to regulate their intake of food towards diets high in carbohydrates. However, some toxins, such as the neonicotinoid, clothianidin, caused bees to prefer diets higher in protein. In addition, we analysed the nectar and pollen of over 300 UK species. We found that most plant species pollen contained 9 or more of the essential amino acids. Nectar was variable in its concentration of amino acids, but most UK nectar was rich in phenylalanine and proline. The carbohydrate composition of most UK nectar contained fructose, glucose, and sucrose with a bias towards more fructose.

We also tested bumblebees and found that their intake target for protein/essential amino acids and carbohydrates shifted towards more protein when the source of protein was casein in comparison to foods that contained a mixture of the 10 essential amino acids freely in solution.
Exploitation Route We anticipate that our findings could help beekeepers by providing information necessary to inform the planting of plant species that enrich the pollen diversity that bees can collect. For example, the seed mixtures used by farmers to provide extra forage for pollinators could be guided by our research.

We also expect that our data will translate into development of nutritional supplements for bees.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink

 
Description We are currently working as a team to develop a bee nutritional supplement and are pursuing BBSRC Follow on Funding to develop the commercial potential of our work. We are in the process of developing a database in collaboration with the BBKA that will make the data we collected on the nutritional value of nectar and pollen available to the general public. We predict that our work on the nutritional value of nectar and pollen will be used by many people, including land managers, industry, and the public. this work is not yet published but we are working on the manuscripts now. The initial methods papers are now in press at Methods in Ecology and Evolution.
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink
Impact Types Societal,Economic

 
Description BBSRC DTG
Amount £40,800 (GBP)
Organisation Newcastle University 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2010 
End 09/2014
 
Description BBSRC DTG Rothamsted
Amount £40,800 (GBP)
Organisation Rothamsted Research 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2012 
End 09/2015
 
Description BBSRC Responsive mode
Amount £540,000 (GBP)
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2017 
End 03/2020
 
Description NERC DTG
Amount £47,800 (GBP)
Organisation Newcastle University 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2012 
End 03/2016
 
Description Royal Society International Workshop Scheme
Amount £7,000 (GBP)
Organisation The Royal Society 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2015 
End 04/2015
 
Description Workshop on Mechanisms of Insect Nutritional Homeostasis
Amount £10,595 (GBP)
Funding ID BB/J019801/1 
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2013 
End 03/2014
 
Title floral nutrition database 
Description This is a database of the nutritional quality of pollen and nectar. It is being assembled with the information about floral resources within the UK collected by the Agriland project with Bill Kunin and Jane Memmott. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact This database will be very valuable for land managers seeking to improve habitat for bees. We are working in collaboration with the British Beekeeping Association to make the database available to the public. We have applied for funding (unsuccessfully) but are planning to apply again to support the construction and maintenance of the database for future use. 
 
Description Collaboration with Bill Kunin and Jane Memmot 
Organisation University of Bristol
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We have analysed over 300 nectar and pollen samples for carbohydrates and amino acids.
Collaborator Contribution The teams of Bill Kunin and Jane Memmot have donated collected samples of nectar and pollen to our study on the nectar and pollen of UK plant species.
Impact We are currently writing up two manuscripts that will be outcomes of this collaboration.
Start Year 2012
 
Description Collaboration with Bill Kunin and Jane Memmot 
Organisation University of Leeds
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We have analysed over 300 nectar and pollen samples for carbohydrates and amino acids.
Collaborator Contribution The teams of Bill Kunin and Jane Memmot have donated collected samples of nectar and pollen to our study on the nectar and pollen of UK plant species.
Impact We are currently writing up two manuscripts that will be outcomes of this collaboration.
Start Year 2012
 
Description collaboration with Jane Stout 
Organisation Trinity College Dublin
Country Ireland 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We have worked together with Phil Stevenson to characterize the impact of grayanotoxins in the nectar of Rhododendron ponticum on the behaviour and longevity of bees.
Collaborator Contribution Dr Stout obtained funding from the Irish Research Council to fund two PhD students. With these students, we were able to survey nectar from wild populations of Rhododendrons and pollinators that visit these plants n Spain and Ireland. We were also able to survey the nectar of many species of Rhododendrons in botanic gardens throughout the UK. This work is currently being written up for publication.
Impact Tiedeken, E.J. J. Stout, P.J. Stevenson, and G.A. Wright. 2014. Bumblebees are not deterred by ecologically relevant concentrations of nectar toxins. Journal of Experimental Biology 217, 1620-1625 other papers are currently in preparation
Start Year 2011
 
Title pollen substitute for honeybees 
Description Using the data from our IPI funded work, we have developed a formula for a pollen substitute for honeybees. We plan to submit the patent in August 2015 and have applied for BBSRC Follow on Funding in June 2015 to develop the research necessary to support the patent. 
IP Reference we are planning to submit the patent in August 2015 
Protection Patent application published
Year Protection Granted 2015
Licensed No
Impact We predict that our product will have a noticeable impact on commercial beekeeping.
 
Description Invited plenary speaker, American Bee Federation meeting, Jacksonville, FL, USA 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I gave an award winning plenary talk on my lab's work on the nutrition of bees to a large group of international beekeepers at the American Bee Federation meeting in the US.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Invited speaker and participant, 'Explorers of knowledge for the benefit of humanity' symposium 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This was an event organized my collaborator, Sharoni Shafir's, institution (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) in Berlin to aid in fund raising for his university. We hope that we have reached potential investors in our developing spin out company.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Invited speaker, California Queen Breeders' association, Ord Bend, CA, USA 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I gave a talk to commercial beekeepers in California about the use of nutritional pollen substitutes and bee nutrition. This is a group of people that have a great need to improve bee nutrition for commercial reasons. I am currently working with them and making contacts so that I can develop a means of feeding bees with substances that meet the honeybee's requirements for essential nutrients.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Kate Humble Kew on a Plate 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Kate Humble interviewed and filmed the research activities in my lab.

This TV program reached thousands of people within the UK.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description Mechanisms of Insect Nutritional Homeostasis III 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This was the third time I have co-organized a workshop on the Mechanisms of Insect Nutritional Homeostasis with Prof Michael Pankratz at the University of Bonn. This workshop involves research scientists working on nutrition from all over the world. It has had an impact on the group of scientists who work on insect nutrition, as it is the only workshop/conference of its kind. We have developed a strong and supportive community of people.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Media interest with publication of Nature paper 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact We had a press conference organized by Nature for over 30 reporters from many different countries.

I fielded several enquiries from reporters around the world before and after the press conference.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Meet the Scientist 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Event at Centre for Life, Newcastle upon Tyne, teaching the general public on the importance of honeybees and the environment

no actual impacts realised to date
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description Moorbank Gardens Open Day Bee Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Public event to teach children about bees and pollinators and their importance in our everyday lives

no actual impacts realised to date
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description Public pollinator survey and insect awareness training 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Pollinator survey at OPEN Farm day in Cockle Park, July 2012. Pollinator identification with members of the general public

no actual impacts realised to date
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description Talks to beekeepers 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Dr. W gave presentations (or will give) at the following workshops/conferences: BBKA meeting April 2011; Hexham Beekeepers meeting October 2011; Northern Beekeepers Assn meeting March 2012;

no actual impacts realised to date
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
 
Description conference presentations 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Members of the research group involved in this project attended professional conferences to give talks about our work.

I made contact with groups working in similar areas and learned about new research
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011,2012,2013,2014,2015
 
Description highlight of my lab's work on bees and caffeine 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact My lab's work on the impact of caffeine on bees was featured in the BBC 2/PBS program called 'Food on the Brain' on air in March 2017.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08hymcm

This BBSRC funded research will be seen all over the world.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08hymcm