The global population is currently around 7.5 billion, projected to rise to about 10 billion by 2050, so we’re going to need to find more food. Around 75% of the food we eat relies on insect pollination to some extent, and insect levels around the world are generally in decline. The increase in food requirements and the decrease in insect numbers don’t match up! Others are investigating how to reverse this decline; I’m looking at how to make flowers more attractive to insects (to help them find them faster) and more rewarding in terms of nectar and pollen (to help boost insect populations).
I’m doing this by looking at the extent of variation in flower size and reward that exists in 21 varieties of strawberry. In practice this involved a month on a strawberry farm in King’s Lynn (by kind permission of Dr Paul Walpole). I’m then taking that variation back to our bee lab to ask bumblebees questions about what they think of that variation, and if they can use it. I do this with relatively simple testing: let’s say I want to see if bees can tell the difference between a round-outlined flower and a wiggly-outlined one. I put a reward (in the form of a droplet of sugary liquid) on the round ones and no reward (just a water droplet) on the wiggly ones, and see if bees can learn to tell the difference. If they can, then I move on to testing whether wiggly or round outlines help bees move between flowers faster. And, of course, wiggliness of outline is just one of a whole host of characteristics that I can test.
I’m also looking at flower colour in a pink-flowered relative of the plant scientist’s workhorse Arabidopsis thaliana (a rather scrubby little weed which has white flowers), trying to find out what genes it’s turned on to make pink, and why those genes have been turned off in Arabidopsis. In practice, this involves a lot of mixing of minute droplets of colourless liquids in the lab.