How Bumblebees support sustainable agriculture?

Romain Royer

,

Marketing Cooperator

February 13, 2024

5 min

Did you know Bumblebees 🐝 detect the chemical signature of stress tolerant plants 💪🌱?

What a windfall for sustainable agriculture: Pollinators can help select varieties adapted to low input farming, and create crops that produce more with less!

I’m not saying it’s easy to count how many times a plant gets her flowers visited – far from easy in fact 😅

That’s why European experts (European Innovation Council EIC) founded the collaborative project DARkWIN, started in 2023 for 3,5 years.

"Our goal is to develop a new, sustainable and eco-friendly way of producing crops that are resistant to pests, diseases and extreme weather conditions, and that have a higher nutritional value for the benefit of farmers, consumers, and the environment."

They join their forces to identify crops with good stress tolerance…

and potentially to develop new varieties of tomatoes for sustainable farming!

Bumblebees detect stress tolerant plants

As you may know, Bees spend most of their time harvesting nectar and pollen. They have become experts in collecting the most nutritious food for their colony.  They find the tomato flowers that contain the best pollen, locate them and let their sisters know.

OK but how can flowers serve as a beacon for resilient plants?

Technically, the transport of photo-assimilates from leaves (sources) to flowers (sinks) is reduced in low-resilient plants, thus flowers are better indicators than leaves of plant well-being. Pollinators can be used as “phenotypers” to select the most resilient plants under sub-optimal conditions.

In other words, if you plant various genotypes in a stiff environment, the toughest ones will produce more pollen. Follow the bees to detect these resilient breeds!

This study has been published in Plant Soil 2023: "Bumblebees sense rootstock-mediated nutrition and fertilization regime in tomato" by Martínez-Andújar, C.,Youssef, R.B., Prudencio, Á.S. et al.

"Bumblebees can sense nutritional quality and fertilization regime of plants through floral and extra floral nectar and other vegetative parts and can translate these differences into foraging choices that can modulate plant growth and productivity."
tomato sustainable agriculture bumblebees natural
Tomato flower stamens indicating pollinator preference

Bumblebees at the service of plant breeders

What next? By studying bumblebees’ foraging, researchers hope to gain insights into the genetic traits that make plants stress tolerant.

In Spain a collaborative project has started, under the patronage of the Spanish National Research Council CSIC. They have pooled skills of excellence in:

-         Digital technologies with CAR, Doriane and Novagric

-         Phenotypingwith CEBAS

-         Pollination and genomics with EBD and CBGP

-         Metabolism with Max-Planck Institut

-         Tomato varieties with Unigenia Semillas

"The project is making use of the unique pollination services of bumblebees to screen plant varieties and identify traits that make them more resistant to pests and diseases, while at the same time enhancing their nutritional value."

This radical new approach of plant phenotyping opens new paths for crop breeding assisted by ecological decisions.

Moreover, DARkWIN will deliver tomato F1 pre-commercial varieties adapted to climate change conditions.

Discover all details on the DARkWIN website : https://darkwin.eu/

DARkWIN resilient tomato varieties
The team DARkWIN in January 2023

How do you track Bumblebees’ foraging moves?

DARkWIN develops a pollinator-assisted selection and phenotyping platform.

Genotype xPollinator x Environment interactions are automatically quantified through abumblebee geo-positioning system: RFID chips on the back of the Bees getdetected by an antenna on the plant, generating a signal. The information iscaptured on a software and analyzed to determine the pollinators’preference.

Bumblebee with an RFID chip

 Plant breeding software for sustainable varieties

Pollinator-assisted selection is based on a multi-omics dataset of unprecedented dimensions:

Many traits get scored on the mapping population of tomato, including floral metabolic,transcriptomic, and ionomic traits, as well as mapping candidate genes, linking floral traits, pollinator preferences, and plant resilience.

All this data is organized in a database of RnDExperience™ by Doriane. This plant breeding software is used by researchers worldwide to develop new varieties and conduct field testing campaigns.

Doriane consultants configure statistical reports for Unigenia plant breeders to evaluate the cultivars response to environmental conditions… and hopefully find a game-changing tomato variety for sustainable agriculture!

DARkWIN project of natural Tomato selection with Bumblebees

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