Knowledge for a sustainable world

Gillian Summers, Philip C Stevenson, Sarah Arnold

Do you have a favourite café that you go back to, time after time, the smell of the coffee drawing you in as you rush by outside? What is it about your favourite brand of coffee that gets you to buy it again and again? Could it be that your favourite coffee improves your memory of its taste so that's the reason you return for more? It may not be true of people and their daily cup, but it is true of caffeine lovers of the bee world – as shown in a recent study by Professor Phil Stevenson of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and NRI, and collaborators at Newcastle University.

Their study showed that “caffeine in the nectar of coffee plants improves bees’ memory for flower odours associated with a food reward, illustrating that plant chemicals in nectar can influence pollinator behaviour or plant pollinator interactions”. Prof. Stevenson continues, “This shows that chemicals can be used by plants to improve the chance of pollination by increasing the visitation of pollinators to a single species.” In other words, the most successful coffee chains attract clientele by offering the best-smelling and -tasting coffee, and the clients respond with their loyalty. The clients also use the free wi-fi and an inevitable data transfer takes place. Their bee counterparts transfer pollen.

So with a single shot of espresso-strength information, Prof. Stevenson will present his findings at the joint meeting of the British Ecological Society (BES) and the Société Française d'Ecologie (SFE), which runs from 9–12 December in Lille, France.

From a harmless, nay – beneficial – stimulant, we move to the purely poisonous. Prof. Stevenson will tell the audience about toxic nectar, naturally occurring in plants like lupin and rhododendron, which adversely affects some, but not all, species of pollinators, as shown in studies carried out with collaborators from Trinity College, Dublin. Could plant chemicals also offer a cure to some diseases suffered by bees? Prof. Stevenson will consider this question and more at his talk.

At the BES–SFE meeting, the stimulating topic of conversation will move from coffee to cocoa, as NRI's Dr. Sarah Arnold gives her presentation on CocoaPOP – a project dealing with the pollination of cocoa in the Caribbean. Her talk will present the project results so far, including the cocoa pollinators that are present on the cocoa estates and how these numbers fluctuate depending on the time of the year and climate conditions at the time, plus some early suggestions about management.

Let's hope the caffeine imbibed at the BES–SFE meeting has a similar effect on the meeting participants as it does on pollinators – and not only do they retain more of the ground-breaking ecological research discussed over the three days, but they remember to return for more of the same next year.

Links: BES press release on research by Phil Stevenson and collaborators | More info on the BES–SFE 2014 meeting | More info on CocoaPOP | Previous research on bumblebees and toxins