A BBSRC-funded Ph.D. student at Queen Mary, University of London has been involved in developing FReD - the Floral Reflectance Database - which holds data on what colors flowers appear to be to bees. This resource may be useful for scientists in a variety of fields and not least those looking at the important role bees play in pollinating food crops - an area of research that will contribute to future food security. The development of the catalog, is reported in the journal PLoS ONE.
BBSRC-funded Ph.D. student Sarah Arnold said: "We have created a database in which the colors of flowers are indexed from this vitally important pollinator's point of view."
Knowing how bees see colors gives us a better idea of which flower colors are the most successful at attracting bees to pollinate them. In the past, records of flower colors did not take the visual systems of pollinator insects into account. Bees - for example - have evolved completely different color detection mechanisms to humans and can see colors outside our own capabilities in the ultra-violet range.
Professor Lars Chittka also from Queen Mary, University of London led the research. He said: "This research highlights that the world we see is not the physical or the 'real' world - different animals have very different senses, depending on the environment the animals operate in."
Bees use visual cues in the environment and can see colors but they perceive the world differently to us, including variations in hue that we cannot ourselves distinguish.
Dr Arnold continued "For the first time, this database will allow us to analyse global trends in flower color, for example how flower colors might change in areas with high UV radiation."
Co-author Professor Vincent Savolainen, from Imperial College London, who holds a joint post at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, adds "We hope this work can help biologists understand how plants have evolved in different habitats - from biodiversity hotspots in South Africa to the cold habitats of northern Europe. FReD's global records may show how flower color could have changed over time, and how this relates to the different insects that pollinate them, and other factors in their local environment."
Professor Chittka and his team have measured the spectral reflectance of a number of flowers in different locations and analyzed what bumblebees perceive, including different shades of ultra-violet.
Samia Faruq, a Ph.D. student at Queen Mary, University of London who is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council works on the computer modeling side of the project. She said: "FReD provides hundreds of records with the colors that the bee sees presented in a very simple way. A successful flower has to be 'noticed' by the bee, and FReD provides a better understanding of the strategy flowers attain.
"Color patterns emerging from the location or altitude in which flowers are found may in turn increase our understanding of the plant-pollinator relationship. We will also be able to determine if flower colors in a given location are converging or diverging in order to give themselves the best chance of reproducing."
Professor Peter McOwan, a computer scientist who helped in developing the technical side of the project, commented: "This combination of biology and computer science, allowing scientist to collaboratively access important data in new ways shows the power of combining these two scientific disciplines. This interdisciplinary approach can produce significant new applications that will help make a real impact in better understand the natural world."
The database is freely searchable and open for international contribution, and will inform future ecological studies. "The records can be used to link flowers together by color, although they appear different to us. On a global scale we will be able to identify the colors preferred by pollinators and see how this varies. This is very significant in terms of the global food supply, which relies on these insects and bees in particular," added Professor Chittka.