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Can Bees Meet Their Nutritional Needs in the Current UK Landscape?

This project aims to understand how nutritional ecology and toxic plant compounds have influenced the decline in pollinator species in Britain.

760 bumblebee on Rhododrendon P_Stevenson crop.jpg

They were brought to the Gardens by Joseph Hooker the son of Kew's first Director, William Jackson Hooker
Naturally occurring grayanotoxin in Rhododendron nectar does not deter bumblebees (Photo: P. Stevenson)

Bees are essential pollinators for at least 39 UK agricultural crops and are in precipitous decline. This project, started in 2011, focuses on the nutritional needs of bees with the ultimate aim of predicting how foraging conditions contribute to the decline of bee populations.

In the last 50 years in the UK alone, the flora of native and managed habitats has changed dramatically, significantly reducing the diversity and abundance of flowering plants used as forage for bees. An important but often overlooked aspect of the interaction between environment, disease, and agriculture on bee populations is whether bees can maintain nutritional balance on existing floral resources.

Nutrition plays a key role in the survival of animals and can strongly influence how factors such as disease impact bee fitness. For example, in eusocial bees, sub-optimal levels of macronutrients such as protein, essential amino acids, and carbohydrates can lead to delayed brood development, susceptibility to diseases and parasites and a reduced tolerance to biochemical stresses such as plant toxins and pesticides. Thus, knowing the optimum intake ratio of protein-to-carbohydrates (P:C) for pollinators as important as honeybees and bumblebees and understanding how they achieve nutritional balance via floral sources will allow us to predict when foraging conditions are not sufficient to support their populations.

The project has three specific aims:

  • To identify the nutritional optima of larvae and adult bumblebees and honeybees.
  • To characterize the nutritional state that influences how bees learn about nutrients, how they make foraging choices, and how they communicate these preferences to the colony.
  • To assess the nutritional value and toxicity of the nectar and pollen from agricultural, horticultural, and wild plant species.

Project partners and collaborators


Dr Geraldine Wright, Newcastle University (overall project leader)


Professor Steve Simpson, University of Sydney

South Africa

Prof. Sue Nicolson, University of Pretoria


Dr Sharoni Shafir, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Project funders


Biochemical & Biological Sciences Research Council.(BBSRC) Insect Pollinator Initiative

Project Department

Project Leader: