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Strategies to optimise pollination of the UK field bean crop

glover1With Dr Jane Thomas, NIAB

Project outline:

Pollination is an essential part of the production of our food supply, with approximately one third of our food resulting from animal (usually insect) pollination. Ensuring an adequate supply of pollinators is essential to maintain global food security, but a number of factors are currently combining to threaten crop pollination. Pollinator populations have declined in many parts of the world, and it is likely that climate change will further uncouple relationships between plants and the insects that they rely on.

Against this backdrop we are interested in exploring strategies to maximise pollination of the UK field bean crop. Field beans are used as animal feed, providing an important protein supply because, like other legumes, they fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. However, recent observations suggest that pollination service is beginning to limit crop yields in field beans and may account for some of the yield variability which frequently occurs in the crop.

The field bean flower is a complex structure, with a strongly bilaterally symmetrical shape. It requires considerable strength from a large pollinator, such as a bumblebee, to open the flower and trigger pollination. The petals are mainly smooth-surfaced, which can be slippery for bees to handle. The flower colour and scent might also be sub-optimal.

We will use a combination of molecular genetic analysis and behavioural ecology techniques to explore strategies to enhance pollination. We will use molecular genetic approaches to explore the development of key traits, including some of floral symmetry, petal texture, flower colour and scent. The field bean varieties available at NIAB will be screened to assess the morphological variation in these traits. Using our caged bumblebee facility we will assess how these variationsinfluence pollinator behaviour. Any lines that appear to attract additional pollinators or facilitate pollinator handling will be trialled in greenhouses with enclosed bumblebee colonies, to assess the effects on fruit set. Such lines will then be tested in field conditions, to explore yield under natural conditions and to develop strategies for future selective breeding of the UK field bean crop.

Please do not apply for this project if you know you are allergic to bee stings.


  1. Bailes, E., Pattrick, J., Ollerton, J. & Glover, B.J. (2015) How can an understanding of plant-pollinator interactions contribute to global food security? Current Opinion in Plant Biology 26, 72-79.