BBC’s The One Show highlights research into hoverflies and plant pollination using DNA barcoding

Research into hoverflies and the role they play in the pollination of plants, conducted by Swansea University’s Department of Biosciences in collaboration with the National Botanic Garden of Wales as part of the Barcode Wales project, featured on BBC’s The One Show last night (Monday, April 13).

Watch the item again on BBC iPlayer here, 25 minutes and 17 seconds in,

BBC The One ShowSwansea University PhD student Andrew Lucas from the Swansea Ecology Research Team (SERT), in the Department of Biosciences, College of Science, is investigating the role that hoverflies play in pollination, using DNA barcoding to identify the pollen grains carried on their bodies.

Andrew, aged 52, originally from Rutland in the East Midlands, but who now lives in Clydach, Swansea, said: “What did you eat yesterday?  Chances are much of it depended in some way on pollinating insects, which provide an essential service for our farming. 

“Most people think of bees when they think of pollinators, and are rightly concerned about the health of both wild and domestic bee populations.  Yet other insects are also important in pollination.  One of these are the hoverflies.

“Hoverflies are flies just like familiar species like bluebottles, but with one crucial difference: they eat only nectar and pollen.  As a result they spend all their time visiting flowers, and transport pollen as a result. 

“Many have a striking similarity to bees or wasps, a defence against potential predators.  Add in that some species have larvae that eat pests like aphids, and you can see that these are very useful insects indeed.” 

The study is using cutting edge science to discover what plants hoverflies visit most.  Pollen is washed from hoverflies, the DNA extracted, and then used to identify which plants the hoverfly has been visiting. 

“This is only possible because of pioneering work led by the National Botanic Garden of Wales, which has published DNA sequences for each plant species in Wales, called DNA Barcodes,” added Andrew.

Andrew Lucas“Wales was the first country in the world to have DNA barcoded all its native flowering plants,” added Dr Natasha de Vere, Head of Conservation and Research at the National Botanic Garden of Wales.

“We have created a powerful research platform that can be used to identify plants from the DNA within their pollen grains and this allows us to answer a wide range of questions about plants and their pollinating insects.”

Dr Dan Forman, head of the Swansea Ecology Research Team and PhD supervisor in the Department of Biosciences at Swansea University’s College of Science, said:  “This exciting cutting edge project will permit us to see what pollen hoverfly species carry at different time of the year.

“This will help us better understand their role in pollinating plants in our landscape.”

This work will answer several questions about hoverflies, and how they act as pollinators.  What flowers do they visit?  Do different hoverfly species prefer particular flowers?  Do individual hoverflies specialise on particular plant species?  How does this vary during a summer?  And does it vary from year to year? 

The results will allow us to better understand the role of hoverflies in pollination.  It could also feed back into management advice to help support hoverflies in the countryside, so that they can continue to pollinate the food on which we all depend. 

The One Show’s visit proved to be very timely in terms of getting the latest results available from the researchers.

“Fortunately, we had received some data on DNA from pollen removed from hoverflies a day or so before entomologist and The One Show presenter Dr George McGavin and the team visited us,” added Andrew.

“It's very early days yet and there are 1000s of DNA barcodes to check, but bramble did seem to be a favorite early in the season, whilst devil's-bit scabious was popular in late summer.”

Group picture caption: Dr Natasha de Vere of the National Botanic Garden of Wales and Dr Dan Forman (right) of Swansea University, explaining the results of the research to BBC The One Show presenter and entomologist Dr George McGavin.

And Swansea University PhD student Andrew Lucas from the Swansea Ecology Research Team (SERT), in the Department of Biosciences, College of Science.