Improving flowers to help feed the world

[Music] “If somebody asked you what bees do, you’d probably imagine a little insect in your garden going from flower to flower, collecting nectar to make into honey to put on your toast. But of the 20,000 or so species of bee, only seven of them produce honey. But many of the others play a key role in producing the food that we eat – for example, oranges to make into juice, strawberries for jam, or beans for coffee.” Bees and other insects such as flies and wasps help us grow food by pollinating flowers. When they do this they transfer pollen from one flower to another, which fertilizes the flowers and means they grow into fruit and seeds. Insect pollination is vital to the production of many crops, and improves the quality and yield of others. As the world population grows, we’re going to need to produce more food – which means we’ll need more pollinators. But around the world we’re seeing a general decline in insect numbers – exactly the opposite of what we need. So in our team here at the University of Cambridge Department of Plant Sciences, researchers including Jake Moscrop are trying to uncover what insects like about flowers. “I want to find out if we can make crop flowers easy for insects to find, more efficient at being pollinated, and more rewarding for the insects which visit them. If we can identify characteristics which help insects find flowers faster, and and interact with them quicker, then we can make better use of insects visiting our plants. Plus, if we can make those flowers more rewarding for the insects by increasing the amount of pollen and nectar, we can help to support wild insect numbers.” Plants including strawberries, broad beans and coffee are pollinated by insects, and flowers are the plants’ advertising display. They’re there to be as attractive as possible to those insects. They do this with a remarkable array of features – not just size and colour, but pattern and smell too. Once an insect has landed on a flower, the advertising continues close up. Some plants have nectar guides, which show the way to the reward, or textured petals which help insects hold onto a flower in just the right way. To be able to tell plant breeders what they should be looking for if they want to select plants which are more appealing to pollinators, Jake needs to know what insects think about flowers from varieties which already exist. Working with bean flowers, he painstakingly looks at their size and shape, along with how big the petal spots are. He also looks at how much nectar and pollen each flower produces, to see how rewarding the flowers are for the insects that visit them. “Once I’ve found the limits of flower features which already exist, I can use our bumblebee lab to ask the bees what they think. We use bumblebees because they’re really easy to work with, and you can buy small colonies commercially. They’re actually what some farmers use in their greenhouses to supplement wild insect numbers. I use plastic models of flowers to test the bees’ reaction to just one thing – in this case it’s the size of spots on the petals. On the flowers which have big spots we’ve put a sugary liquid, which the bees like, and on the flowers with small spots we put water, which the bees like less. This experiment tests whether the bees can tell the difference between the big spots and the small spots. If they can then we’d expect the bees to learn over time that the sugar can be found in flowers with big spots and to ignore the flowers with small spots. Once we know this we can move on to experiments seeing which size spot helps bees move between flowers faster – and spot size is only one of a number of features of the flower we can test, so there’s lots to find out.” All this knowledge means we can work with plant breeders to produce crops which use pollinating insects more efficiently – meaning the same number of insects can pollinate more flowers per day – and this will help us to grow more food. “I love the fact I get to do research with both plants and bees – two of my favorite things. While these experiments are quite simple to do, it’s amazing to think they could have such a profound impact on the crops we’ll be using to feed ourselves in the future.” [Music] “In the past crops have been bred for things like disease resistance and shelf-life or yield, with no regard for features which are attractive to pollinators. But in the context of a rising world population and global pollinator decline, work like we’re doing here at Plant Sciences is becoming more important. If we can breed crop plants which are more attractive to insects and which are easier for them to use, then we’ll be another step along the road to being able to feed everyone in the years to come.” [Music]

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