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New bee vision database useful for food security and more

Visit  Queen Mary University of London websiteVisit  Imperial College London website

10 December 2010

A BBSRC-funded PhD student at Queen Mary, University of London has been involved in developing FReD - the Floral Reflectance Database - which holds data on what colours flowers appear to be to bees. This resource may be useful for scientists in a variety of fields and not least those looking at the important role bees play in pollinating food crops - an area of research that will contribute to future food security. The development of the catalogue, is reported in the journal PLoS ONE.

BBSRC-funded PhD student Sarah Arnold said: "We have created a database in which the colours of flowers are indexed from this vitally important pollinator's point of view."

Knowing how bees see colours gives us a better idea of which flower colours are the most successful at attracting bees to pollinate them. In the past, records of flower colours did not take the visual systems of pollinator insects into account. Bees - for example - have evolved completely different colour detection mechanisms to humans and can see colours outside our own capabilities in the ultra-violet range.

Creeping Zinnia (Sanvitalia procumbens) as we see it (left) and with UV shades made visible (right). The petals clearly appear two-toned to bees, which have the ability to see these colours. (Photographer: Klaus Schmitt).

Creeping Zinnia (Sanvitalia procumbens) as we see it (left) and with UV shades made visible (right). The petals clearly appear two-toned to bees, which have the ability to see these colours. Image: Klaus Schmitt.

Professor Lars Chittka also from Queen Mary, University of London led the research. He said: "This research highlights that the world we see is not the physical or the 'real' world - different animals have very different senses, depending on the environment the animals operate in."

Bees use visual cues in the environment and can see colours but they perceive the world differently to us, including variations in hue that we cannot ourselves distinguish.

Dr Arnold continued "For the first time, this database will allow us to analyse global trends in flower colour, for example how flower colours might change in areas with high UV radiation."

Co-author Professor Vincent Savolainen, from Imperial College London, who holds a joint post at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, adds "We hope this work can help biologists understand how plants have evolved in different habitats - from biodiversity hotspots in South Africa to the cold habitats of northern Europe. FReD's global records may show how flower colour could have changed over time, and how this relates to the different insects that pollinate them, and other factors in their local environment."

Professor Chittka and his team have measured the spectral reflectance of a number of flowers in different locations and analysed what bumblebees perceive, including different shades of ultra-violet.

Samia Faruq, a PhD student at Queen Mary, University of London who is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council works on the computer modelling side of the project. She said: "FReD provides hundreds of records with the colours that the bee sees presented in a very simple way. A successful flower has to be 'noticed' by the bee, and FReD provides a better understanding of the strategy flowers attain.

"Colour patterns emerging from the location or altitude in which flowers are found may in turn increase our understanding of the plant-pollinator relationship. We will also be able to determine if flower colours in a given location are converging or diverging in order to give themselves the best chance of reproducing."

Professor Peter McOwan, a computer scientist who helped in developing the technical side of the project, commented: "This combination of biology and computer science, allowing scientist to collaboratively access important data in new ways shows the power of combining these two scientific disciplines. This interdisciplinary approach can produce significant new applications that will help make a real impact in better understand the natural world."

The database is freely searchable and open for international contribution, and will inform future ecological studies. "The records can be used to link flowers together by colour, although they appear different to us. On a global scale we will be able to identify the colours preferred by pollinators and see how this varies. This is very significant in terms of the global food supply, which relies on these insects and bees in particular" added Professor Chittka.

ENDS

Notes to editors

The paper "FReD: The Floral Reflectance Database - a web portal for analyses of flower colour", S. E. J. Arnold, S. Faruq, V. Savolainen and L. Chittka will appear in PLoS ONE on 10 December.

About Queen Mary, University of London

Queen Mary, University of London is one of the UK's leading research-focused higher education institutions with some 15,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students. Amongst the largest of the colleges of the University of London, Queen Mary's 3,000 staff deliver world class degree programmes and research across 21 academic departments and institutes, within three sectors: Science and Engineering; Humanities, Social Sciences and Laws; and the School of Medicine and Dentistry.

Ranked 11th in the UK according to the Guardian analysis of the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, Queen Mary has been described as 'the biggest star among the research-intensive institutions' by the Times Higher Education and also won the 'Most Improved Student Experience' award for 2009, reflecting the superb academic and social experience offered to all students at the College. The College has a strong international reputation, with around 20 per cent of students coming from over 100 countries.

Queen Mary has an annual turnover of £220M, research income worth £61M, and generates employment and output worth £600M to the UK economy each year. As a member of the 1994 Group of research-focused universities, Queen Mary has made a strategic commitment to the highest quality of research, but also to the best possible educational, cultural and social experience for its students.

The College is unique amongst London's universities in being able to offer a completely integrated residential campus, with a 2,000-bed award-winning Student Village on its Mile End campus. www.qmul.ac.uk

Twitter: http://twitter.com/QMUL

About Imperial College London

Consistently rated amongst the world's best universities, Imperial College London is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research that attracts 14,000 students and 6,000 staff of the highest international quality. Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and business, delivering practical solutions that improve quality of life and the environment - underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture.

Since its foundation in 1907, Imperial's contributions to society have included the discovery of penicillin, the development of holography and the foundations of fibre optics. This commitment to the application of research for the benefit of all continues today, with current focuses including interdisciplinary collaborations to improve global health, tackle climate change, develop sustainable sources of energy and address security challenges. In 2007, Imperial College London and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust formed the UK's first Academic Health Science Centre. This unique partnership aims to improve the quality of life of patients and populations by taking new discoveries and translating them into new therapies as quickly as possible. www.imperial.ac.uk

About EPSRC

The Engineering and Physical Sciences research Council (EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and physical sciences. EPSRC invests around £850m a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change.

The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC also actively promotes public awareness of science and engineering. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via research Councils UK. www.epsrc.ac.uk

About BBSRC

BBSRC is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £470M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life in the UK and beyond and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders, including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

BBSRC provides institute strategic research grants to the following:

  • The Babraham Institute
  • Institute for Animal Health
  • Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (Aberystwyth University)
  • Institute of Food Research
  • John Innes Centre
  • The Genome Analysis Centre
  • The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh)
  • Rothamsted Research

The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.

External contact

James Lush, Communications Officer for Science and Engineering Queen Mary, University of London

tel: 020 7882 7454