Bee health is topic of new pollen research at UMass Amherst

June 8th, 2017
A wild sunflower, Helianthus annuus, in a tent at a UMass Amherst research farm. The setup is used to study honey bees collecting pollen in biologist Lynn Adler's experiments on the role that sunflower pollen may play in bee health. Credit: UMass Amherst
Biology professor Lynn Adler at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, an expert in pollination and plant-insect interactions, recently received a three-year, $1 million grant from a special "pollinator health" program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to study the role that sunflower pollen may play in improving bee health.

In addition to basic research, the grant emphasizes extension outreach to the public and stakeholders such as amateur beekeepers, commercial bumblebee producers, vegetable and fruit growers, commercial seed producers and others to make the most useful results and new knowledge available to them. According to the USDA, pollinator populations have suffered serious losses for a number of reasons over the past 30 years, estimated at more than 40 percent in 2015.

The grant will also support hiring an extension bee educator for three years with an expected start date of summer 2018. Adler says, "Right now there are no university extension educators in Massachusetts that beekeepers can go to with questions and concerns about their bees' health and well-being, which is something the USDA is interested in addressing."

She adds, "The USDA is in general looking for creative new strategies to improve pollinator health over the next 10 years, and we feel that we have something to offer. We'll work with honeybees and bumblebees to look at how sunflower pollen and plantings affect bee health. There is strong evidence from our pilot studies that sunflower pollen can help bumblebees fight off a common pathogen called Crithidia."

The biologist says that in the course of her many years studying flower nectar, "it became clear that pollen would be of interest because the defense chemicals found in it can be 10 to 10,000 times more concentrated than they are in nectar. This grant intends to look at how sunflower pollen affects bee health."

Adler and dozens of her undergraduate and graduate students will study bee health to explore whether a medicinal supplement made from sunflower pollen might be helpful as an additive to bees' staple diet and whether adding sunflower to pollinator-friendly plantings can improve bee health. By the end of the grant, she says, "I hope we're going to have concrete recommendations to support bee health. It might even lead to commercial products."

Adler says she will work directly with bee keepers, an advisory board of apiarists, the Massachusetts state apiary inspector, extension fruit and vegetable educators, and UMass extension entomologist Tawny Simisky during both development of the experimental design details and to disseminate information, to ensure the experiments are asking the most useful quesitions and that results are available to the widest possible audience.

Further, Adler will collaborate with pollinator ecologist Rebecca Irwin at North Carolina State University, where the researchers can take advantage of the state's series of agricultural stations to assess the effect of different areas of sunflower plantings on wild bees, as well as pollen supplements available in different amounts and concentrations to wild and commercial bumble bees.

For other parts of the multi-institution grant, Adler will work with researchers including Jay Evans of the USDA in Beltsville, Md., an expert in honey bee biology and disease, genomics and honey bee gut parasites, and Quinn McFrederick of the University of California, Riverside, an expert in using molecular methods to characterize the bee microbiome.

Provided by University of Massachusetts Amherst

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