CORVALLIS, Ore. — Oregon State University researchers have been awarded a $500,000 USDA grant to study more than 100 plants to find which provide honey bees with the highest nutritional value.

Honey bee nutrition, researchers say, is a "severely understudied" field. Understanding what macro- and micronutrients honey bees need, and in what doses, could help scientists better understand the global decline of bee populations and potentially help slow colony collapse.

The intent of the study is to produce a list of the crops, native plants and ornamentals that have optimal nutritional value for honey bees: plants which farmers and backyard gardeners could plant to support local bee populations. Researchers say this would ultimately benefit growers through better crop and garden pollination.

"What really excites me is the healthier your bees are, the better they are able to fight stressors," said Priyadarshini "Priya" Chakrabarti, a research assistant on the OSU project who has just accepted a position as assistant professor at Mississippi State University.

Chakrabarti will be working with the study's leader, Ramesh Sagili, associate professor of apiculture and OSU Extension specialist, and a team of "citizen scientists."

The project, Sagili said, is "ambitious."

For the work, the researchers will need to collect pollen from more than 100 different plant types across the state — not an easy task.

That's where community volunteers come in.

Sagili and Chakrabarti will train volunteers to collect pollen by hand from flowers and bring the pollen into OSU's lab for analysis, a painstaking process.

And that's the easy part. Some flowers are too tiny or uniquely shaped to hand-collect pollen from. Only insects can easily access this pollen, which means volunteers will need to capture the bees so researchers can harvest the pollen from baskets on the bees' hind legs. The capture-and-transport process will involve freezing bees into hibernation.

Honey bees, Sagili said, have an instinct known as "floral fidelity," meaning they stick to harvesting pollen from one species of plant per trip outside the hive for efficiency's sake. This will make it possible for volunteers and researchers to identify exactly the kind of pollen on a bee's hind legs.

In labs, Chakrabarti and Sagili will then analyze each type of pollen, studying precise macronutrients and micronutrients to assess nutritional value.

This might all seem like a lot of unnecessary work. Why not just trust bees to go to the healthiest pollen sources on their own? The researchers say certain plants attract bees more than others, but that doesn't necessarily mean those plants are the most nutritious.

Bees may choose the pollen they like best but that is not best for them, much like a person choosing an ice cream cone over a carrot. Researchers just don't know yet, and Chakrabarti said it's crucial to fill this knowledge gap.

"It's just like building your own immune system as a person," she said. "What you consume matters."

Well-nourished colonies can better withstand varroa mites, pesticides, parasites and habitat loss.

The researchers say they hope their work will enable farmers to eventually plant more bee-friendly forage.

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