Honey bees are highly important, both ecologically and economically, as a pollinator of wild and crop plants.
There is worldwide concern over increased rates of honey bee colony loss. The effects of agricultural intensification, climate change, habitat loss, pests, and disease are all interacting to contribute to these declines.
Detailed studies on which plants honey bees are choosing to use throughout the season, and why, is lacking. This is not surprising, as it requires an ability to determine exactly which plants the honey bees are using compared to the plants in flower.
We use DNA barcoding approaches to find out the flowers honey bees are using, from the pollen they collect and the honey that they make.
We study the honey bees housed in our Bee Garden. The National Botanic Garden of Wales provides an interesting study environment in which to answer questions about the floral preferences of honey bees. It contains over 8,000 taxa of flowering plants, which provides a highly diverse choice of native and non-native plant species for our honey bees to choose from.
From the Garden’s hives, we sample the honey and pollen throughout the season. We also work with beekeepers to collect honey from hives across the UK. Using the DNA from the honey and pollen, we can identify the floral source.
To investigate the choices the honey bees are making, we need to compare this DNA information on the plants the honey bees are using with the flowers that were available to them. To do this we conduct surveys of the Garden that record all the plants in bloom throughout the year, with the help of an invaluable group of conservation volunteers. We combine this with mapping using UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) technology to give us the available floral resource.
With this information we can start to answer questions on the floral preferences of honey bees and how the plants used compare with the plants available. We can relate this to nutritional requirements, examining the pollen and nectar, and start to answer why these honey bees are choosing these plants.