Roslin Institute seminar: Geraldine Wright (Newcastle University) - Sipping from a poisoned chalice

  • Title:  Sipping from a poisoned chalice: Mechanisms for the detection of plant toxins and pesticides in nectar in bees
  • When:  Wendesday 15 November 2017
  • Time:  1 pm
  • Location:  Main auditorium, Roslin Institute, Esater Bush
  • Host:  Emily Clark (DB)


Insect pollinators like bees have a long-standing mutualism with plants in which they visit flowers to obtain nectar and pollen. This mutualism is complicated by the fact that nectar and pollen are often laced with toxic compounds that plants produce as a means of defence against herbivores. In contrast to insect herbivores, bees have few genes for gustatory receptors, implying that they have poor acuity for the detection of toxins. Here, I will describe the pre-ingestive mechanisms that honeybees and bumblebees possess for detecting toxins such as pesticides. Using tip recordings from the mouthparts’ sensilla, we have identified neurons that respond with tonic activation during stimulation with toxic substances such as nicotine, but only when the toxins are present at high concentrations (mM). These neurons did not respond to the range of concentrations of pesticides encountered by bees in the field. By examining how the responses of the mouthparts sensilla correlate with the behaviour of bees, we have found that tonic activation of putative ‘bitter’ neurons is not sufficient to enable rejection of food solutions. Thus, we present evidence that the detection and rejection of toxins in food solutions is complex and is likely to involve specific activation of the entire population of gustatory sensilla present on the mouthparts.

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