To understand our bees, we must understand our plants

25.02.22

In Australia, through the Plan Bee program, we are embarking on a journey to implement estimated breeding values to assist in genetic selection. This process has been successful in improving the productivity of other animal industries and the Australian honey bee industry is looking to emulate this success.

But outside of estimated breeding values there are many other lessons we can learn from other industries.

One process that other industries excel at is the understanding of, and accounting for, inputs and outputs – the feed conversion ratio.

How much feed do you put in to produce how much product? By understanding and selecting for this trait farmers can maximise production while reducing costs. This is important to the viability of businesses and industries.

Honey bees are free-flying and thus it’s impossible to control what they’re eating. They forage on a wide variety of plants – if they are available in the environment. That’s a good thing as they require a varied diet.

However, there are few plants that we have good nutrional data on. Total protein, amino acids, sugar concentration, vitamins, minerals, is not well understood for most plants.

But this is incredibly important. Nutrient deficiency increases Nosema and other infections, reduces brood and worker populations, lifespan, and age at first foraging. These will have knock-on effects on honey production and pollination.

Imagine a world where a pollination contractor knew that the first two crops of the season had the same nutrient deficiency. Knowing that, they could make better decisions about where to take their bees next or possibly provide a supplement that will help keep their bees healthy. In addition, growers could make plantings to complement the nutrition available from their crops and thus contribute to keeping pollinators healthy and strong while they do their important work.

The University of Sydney has awarded a SOLES Strategic Partnerships Seeding Grant to start investigating these questions. The team, led by Tanya Latty, will be looking at the pollen and nectar content of plants in the Sydney Basin and investigating how fire changes plant nutrition for pollinators. Such work is fundamental in creating a system to better support honey bees and other pollinators through the provision of appropriate nutrition. If we don’t know what their diet is lacking we can’t take steps to rectify the problem.

Plan Bee (National Honey Bee Genetic Improvement Program) is supported by funding from the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment as part of its Rural Research and Development for Profit program. The project is further supported by AgriFutures Australia, the Department of Regional NSW, University of Sydney, University of New England Animal Genetics and Breeding Unit, Better Bees WA Inc, Wheen Bee Foundation, Costa Group, Olam, Beechworth Honey, Monson’s Honey and Pollination, South Pacific Seeds, Australian Queen Bee Breeders Association, Australian Honey Bee Industry Council, and commercial beekeepers.