Save the Bees: Sunflower Pollen Could Boost Insects' Health

Over the past decade, scientists have been grappling with the worrying decline of bee populations. Sunflower plants could provide a solution, according to a study.

The pollen in the bright yellow flowering plants is thought to prevent bumble bees from being infected by a pathogen known as crithidia bombi, and protect the European honeybee from nosema ceranae, both of which are believed to play a role in tumbling bee numbers.

The study was published in the Nature-affiliated journal Scientific Reports as experts try to save bees and their crucial role in pollination, in turn protecting plant biodiversity and food crops around the world.

What a bee eats can aid its immune system, and bees largely get their fats and protein from pollen, with each flower providing different amounts. Sunflowers could therefore be a relatively easy and natural way to boost bees' health, the authors believe.

Sunflowers could boost the health of bees, according to researchers. Getty Images

Related: Bee deaths: Scientists warn common weed killer glyphosate is killing honeybees

However, sunflowers don't appear to be a panacea for all of a bee's ills. Honeybees given sunflower pollen were as likely to die as those who didn't take it, and were four times more likely to die than honeybees given buckwheat pollen. Bumble bees didn't experience this, however.

Still, the potential health-boosting properties of sunflower pollen are exciting considering 2 million acres worth are grown in the U.S. year, and as many as 10 million in Europe, said study author Jonathan Giacomini, a Ph.D. student in applied ecology at North Carolina State University.

Researchers at North Carolina State University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst studied bumble bees from farms containing sunflowers, and noticed the insects had lower levels of crithidia infections compared with those who didn't. The team also conducted lab studies on the presence of pathogens in bumble and honeybees to arrive at their conclusion.

Rebecca Irwin, professor of applied ecology at North Carolina State University and co-author of the study, commented: "We've tried other monofloral pollens, or pollens coming from one flower, but we seem to have hit the jackpot with sunflower pollen. None of the others we've studied have had this consistent positive effect on bumble bee health."

Scientists are racing to understand why honeybee populations are depleting. Getty Images

While sunflowers don't provide all the nutrients a bee needs (they don't contain much protein, and lack some amino acids) the plants could be an important addition to a bee's varied diet, said Irwin. Next, the team wants to dose different species of bees with sunflower pollen to compare its effects.

Citing the fact there are more than 20,000 bee species in the world, graduate student lead author Jonathan Giacomini told Newsweek: "Future research will be aimed at understanding how sunflowers affect pathogen dynamics of not just the individual bee species, but also the entire bee community.

"For example, some bee species are considered generalist foragers, meaning that they consume a wide array of available resources, while other bee species are specialists that stick to a select set of resources. Thus, understanding the costs and benefits of including sunflowers in a habit as it pertains to a variety of bee species with various life history strategies will elucidate better conservation strategies aimed at protecting bee communities as a whole."

Amateur gardeners can help, she continued, by being mindful of how they cultivate their green spaces.

"As we consider plants to include in our own gardens, always consider a diverse wildflower mix and our research suggests that including sunflower in that diversity may be important in reducing disease and potentially increasing bee health," she said.

The study comes a day after scientists who authored a separate study warned a common weed killer could be destroying bee populations across the world.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin treated honeybees with glyphosate, and found it appeared to damage the gut bacteria which populate their bodies, known as the microbiome.

Erick Motta, a graduate student who led the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, told Newsweek at the time: "We rely on bees for pollination of flowering plants, which includes many crops, so maximizing their health is in our interest."

This article has been updated with comment from professor Rebecca Irwin and Jonathan Giacomini.