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Kew's 2017-18 Sandwich Students Report back

Each year Kew’s Science Directorate hosts a number of twelve-month sandwich internships across its six research departments which contribute to a diverse range of projects. Two of the 2017-18 interns report back on their experiences over the past year
27 November 2018
Blog team: 
Connor Panter and James Woodward

How I helped protect Bolivia’s botanically diverse, but threatened, Chiquitania ecoregion

Connor Panter, University of Brighton: 

Throughout my placement year, I worked in the Americas Team on their Tropical Important Plant Areas (TIPAs) project in Bolivia. This is a collaboration with Museo de Historia Natural de Noel Kempff Mercado in Santa Cruz (Bolivia) and Missouri Botanical Garden in St Louis (USA).

TIPAS are areas of high plant diversity that are threatened by land use change, climate change and degradation. The project is ongoing and will identify TIPAs within the globally unique Chiquitania ecoregion, an area covering a large proportion of eastern lowland Bolivia and extending into Brazil. This ecoregion is comprised of dry forest, important tropical grassland and the unique Pantanal wetland habitats. To identify TIPAs we use criteria such as botanical richness and globally rare and/or threatened habitats and species. 

The TIPAs Bolivia project also involves assessing and updating existing global conservation assessments for 225 plant species following the IUCN’s Red List criteria to highlight areas where conservation is important. There are many plant species within the Chiquitania that have small, localised distributions. Luckily, most of the material in Kew’s Herbarium contains information about the specimen’s collection location. These geographic coordinates play a vital role in determining a species’ range size and extent, allowing extinction risk estimates to be calculated for each species. My role within the project was to collect and analyse plant distribution data, both from the herbarium specimens and external data sources. During my year I helped to georeference more than 3000 plant collections! The data generated are currently being used as part of the red list assessments to help protect the Chiquitania’s threatened flora.

What did I learn as a Science Intern?
Firstly, as a result of the project I recently attended an IUCN Red List workshop where I learnt how to conduct full global and regional red list assessments. I also developed a number of key skills including digitising, georeferencing, geographic information system (GIS) mapping, statistical analyses and have become comfortable using statistical software. Furthermore I gained valuable experience in tropical plant identification and taxonomy, teamwork, scientific communication and improved my understanding of current conservation issues. I have since taken these skills back to my own studies and am now conducting my own research project focussing on the use of open-source distribution data in species’ conservation assessments which will form my final year dissertation project. I highly recommend a one-year placement at Kew to any students wanting to pursue a career in scientific research!

Connor taking some time out from research in Kew's Palm House.

Herbarium specimens from Bolivia.

Can plants medicate pollinators against their diseases?

James Woodward, University of Bath:

Did you know that 75% of leading global food crops depend on animals for pollination? With the world’s population growing rapidly, pollinators are increasingly important to ensure global food security and human nutrition. Unfortunately, the rising demands for food has led to the intensification of agricultural practices causing wild and managed pollinator populations to decline in many regions of the world, potentially leading to declines in crop yields and loss of biodiversity. 

Some pressures responsible for these declines include change in land use, pesticides, climate change, invasive species and disease. During my time at Kew I have been focusing on the disease aspect of pollinator decline, in particular a prevalent gut parasite of bumblebees called Crithidia bombi. The presence of this parasite in bumblebee queens can result in a 40% reduction in colony fitness. 

Nectar is a nutritious reward for pollinators, containing mostly sugars and amino acids, however nectar also contains defence chemicals that can protect the plant against organisms looking to exploit this nutritious resource without pollinating the plant.

Some plant species produce nectar that contains chemicals which inhibit the growth of C. bombi and thus medicates bumblebees against this parasite. My role within the project was to identify these plant species. This involved me sampling nectar from plants and testing their nectar chemistry against C. bombi. I also isolated and analysed novel nectar defence chemicals in the Jodrell Laboratory at Kew. This work has identified compounds in nectar that reduce acquisition of parasites and may be of value in helping bees to stay disease free. Identifying plants that are medicinal for bumblebees could inform how we manage our non-crop habitats to provide forage plants with the added benefit of antimicrobial compounds and create landscapes that support healthy pollinator populations.

Buff tailed bumblebee foraging on heather (Calluna vulgaris). (Image: Hauke Koch)

James sampling nectar from heather (Calluna vulgaris), one of the top 3 plants in the UK for producing nectar sugars. (Image: Hauke Koch)

Internships at Kew

We offer a range of internships across our science departments, providing practical work experience and training to undergraduates and recent graduates. Find out more.

Tropical Important Plant Areas

Find out more about Kew's work on the Chiquitano ecoregion of Bolivia.

Chemicals in nectar: Harmful or helpful?

Plant nectar and pollen contain a range of chemicals, some of which have antimicrobial properties that could help bees. Read about this project.

Bombus hortorum