Investigating the impacts of nutrition on honey bee health

Ben Jones

June 2013 - Ben Jones, Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera) and the University of Exeter update

Ben writes:

"After joining the National Bee Unit in 2006 as a Laboratory and Apiary Technician, I was appointed to my current role as the Laboratory Manager in 2008. In this time, I have had the opportunity to gain experience working in the NBU’s applied experimental programme. In November 2011 I had the opportunity to develop this experience further by applying to undertake a part time PhD, investigating the impacts of dietary pollen on honey bee immunity. Objective

The development and maintenance of honey bee colonies depend on adequate nutrition. In order to maintain healthy honey bee colonies, it is essential that they receive sufficient nutrition of the correct type (nutritional value) to promote their continuous survival. Pollen is virtually the only source of protein naturally available to honey bees. However, different pollens have different qualities, e.g. pollen from the plants in the family Fabaceae (such as white clover) show large variation in protein and amino acid content. Previous trials suggest that the addition of pollen in the diet of adult honey bees could enhance immunity, suggesting a link between nutrition and immune function. However, the impacts of the components of dietary pollen on the honey bee immune system remain poorly understood.

My PhD is investigating this knowledge gap and is jointly supervised by Dr James Cresswell at the University of Exeter and Dr Giles Budge at the National Bee Unit.

The information obtained from this project will provide beekeepers with valuable local knowledge when choosing apiary locations that will best enhance the nutritional status of their colonies, and inform on the provision of the most appropriate in-hive pollen and feed supplements. We aim to ascertain if certain diets or ‘pollen cocktails’, will promote disease resistance in honey bees by supporting the immune system.

This work has only been possible by the supportive funding received from beekeeping bodies across England. I am pleased to say, that after an initial presentation to the South West Counties Joint Consultative Committee (SWJCC) in 2012, members were consulted and made a significant contribution, as did Bee Diseases Insurance. The collective funding is helping to speed up the completion of the laboratory trials currently being undertaken on this project.

Progress so far

During the first year of my PhD, my work has focussed on the development of the research tools and methods for this project and going into the 2013 season, we are now in a position to apply these methods. I currently am running a laboratory study to increase our basic understanding of the physiological immune response in Apis mellifera. Preliminary results have indicated an experimental ‘framework’ to work within for future trials that investigate the interaction of different diets on the honey bee immune system.

National Bee Unit June 2013

Honey bee foraging on borage photo - Courtesy The Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), Crown Copyright