New method of identifying bees’ plant preferences

Bee preferences
Copyright: iStock/florintt

A new method of identifying the which flowers are important for bees has been developed by scientists at Earlham Institute (EI) and the University of East Anglia (UEA).


Bees and wildflowers are in vast decline across both Europe and the UK. Our society relies greatly on bees to pollinate a third of all our food. Bee pollination is estimated to be worth €288 billion, worldwide.


The most prominent threats to bees are agriculture, parasites, disease, climate change and most importantly, the loss of biodiversity. Biodiversity is not only crucial to bees but to other wild pollinators. One way in which to remedy this is by providing a better habitat for these creatures. By planting the correct wildflowers and providing an environment for pollinators to nest and breed, we can begin to rejuvenate the insect population.


Plant preferences vary between pollinators depending on the environmental conditions. In agriculture, farmers need to be certain that bees and other pollinators are visiting their plants. Previously scientists used light microscopy to study each individual bee to determine the individual pollen grain. However, this process is impractical due to the time taken to analyse each bee.


This method will be virtually obsolete due to a new method of testing bees. Scientists have developed a new method called ‘Reverse Metagenomics’ which involves the use of a portable DNA sequencer from Oxford Nanopore Technologies called MinION. MinION allows scientist to rapidly analyse on site what plants individual bees visit.

PHD student, Ned Peel is responsible for the research in the Leggett Group at EI: “Importantly, from a mixed sample of pollen, as well as being able to work out what species of plant bees have visited, we can also measure the relative quantities of each type of pollen. This type of analysis can be applied not only to conserving pollinators but to helping us to sustainably improve crop production that relies on pollinators…In collaboration with UEA’s School of Biological Sciences, who performed the ecological side of the research – collecting bees and plant samples – we discovered that we could conduct the analysis using ‘reference skims’ instead.” 


“To make a skim, we carry out really cheap sequencing that only partially covers the complete genome of the plants, but this is enough when compared with the long reads from the MinION to identify plants. In our work, we generated skims of 49 different wild UK plant species.”


This technique can reliably differentiate species in a mixed sample according to the amount of DNA present of each. The results showed that honeybees, and two species of bumblebee, demonstrate a high preference for one plant species per foraging trip.”


The method could also be used to study other mixed samples, such as herbivore dung, for diet analysis; and air, to identify airborne allergenic pollen and crop pathogens.


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