Heathers can help bumblebees fight diseases, according to new research by the Kew Botanic Gardens.
The study published by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Royal Holloway, University of London, outlines that a natural nectar chemical in Calluna heather called callunene can act as a medicine to protect bumblebees from a harmful parasite.
The common gut parasite, Crithidia bombi, is transmitted between bumblebees on flowers or within the nest.
Dr Hauke Koch, Biologist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew says: “Just like us, pollinators can catch diseases that make them sick. Bees also face additional pressures from habitat destruction, pesticides and climate change. While beekeepers can often help sick colonies of domesticated honeybees by, for example, directly treating against parasites, we can’t help wild bees against disease threats in the same way. Our discovery shows, however, that a good way to help pollinators in the wild may be protecting key medicinal plants for them.”
After looking at the medicinal traits of 17 plants that are important food providers for bees in Europe, scientists found that the nectar of heather was the most effective at fighting Crithidia bombi. Upon further examining the nectar, Dr Koch and team discovered that just a single compound called callunene was responsible for the parasite inhibition.
While this discovery could be very important for bumblebees, heathlands across Europe are disappearing or becoming more fragmented.
According to The Wildlife Trust, around 85% of lowland heathland in the UK has been lost over the last 150 years due to agricultural development.
“Protecting heathlands is very important to conserve the high biodiversity found in this habitat. Our work shows that heathlands may be even more valuable than previously thought by providing wild bumblebees with a natural medicinal nectar as protection against a major parasite." Dr Koch adds.
"The global decline of plant diversity could mean that pollinators are losing many other health promoting plants without us realising it. We need to further study the importance of plant diversity for pollinator health and ensure that key beneficial plants like heather are protected in their natural environment.”
You can read the full study here.