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Stephen Wratten

Professor Stephen Wratten among sunflowers in his Lincoln University greenhouse. Photo: Supplied

2018: Professor Stephen Wratten FRSNZ, Lincoln University, has been awarded a James Cook Research Fellowship in Biological Sciences for research entitled: ''Dirty Water' and perfect pollens to improve bee health and resistance to pests'

Agriculture has been called the biggest ecological experiment on earth. This global activity occupies 36% of the earth’s arable land and contributes up to 40% of the GDP in developing countries, but less than 1% in developed ones. The idea of ‘sustainable intensification’ is being advocated by the world’s policy makers: a system in which agricultural yields are increased while minimising adverse environmental impact. Agriculture has inadvertent but major negative consequences, including a severe impact on biodiversity, human health and the environment. Thus, Professor Stephen Wratten (and colleagues) will address one of the major biodiversity challenges facing the future of agriculture: threats to bee populations and their pollination efficacy.

In this James Cook Research Fellowship, Professor Wratten will employ a vital new approach to the understanding and enhancement of pollinator populations. His approach is based on the recent discovery that the pollen of some flower species does not have an appropriate ratio of nutrients for bee health, particularly with respect to sodium. This element, along with others such as potassium, calcium, magnesium, and iron, are vital for the health of pollinators. Currently, when floral mixtures are selected to improve bee health, no account is taken of the pollen nutrient composition. Professor Wratten will analyse the chemical composition of pollens in a range of plant species to assess their suitability to bees and other pollinating insects. He will also develop science-based drinking water for bees, supplemented with a balanced mixture of soil-derived minerals to provide the nutrients appropriate for bee health. These research methods also have the potential to increase bee resistance to pathogens and parasites, including the Varroa mite, thereby addressing some of the causes of bee population decline. This novel approach employed by Professor Wratten can provide world-class management protocols for bees and other pollinating insects for deployment in bee keeping, and beyond. The project will serve the burgeoning bee economy in New Zealand, an industry which currently has approximately one million honey bee hives but which has suffered somewhat from a lack of focused research for optimal management.