UK researcher's flowering, hybrid tobacco plants may help bee population

University of Kentucky tobacco researcher Rich Mundell is testing to see whether a type of tobacco bred for possible use in making  pharmaceuticals will attract honeybees. The flowers on the tobacco plants contain nectar with a high sugar content.
University of Kentucky tobacco researcher Rich Mundell is testing to see whether a type of tobacco bred for possible use in making pharmaceuticals will attract honeybees. The flowers on the tobacco plants contain nectar with a high sugar content. Herald-Leader

Last spring, University of Kentucky tobacco researcher Rich Mundell handed out hundreds of tobacco plants to willing takers at the Lexington Farmers Market. The plants were part of an experiment, and Mundell asked that recipients be willing to share information with him about how the plants did in home gardens.

Mundell was interested in one aspect in particular: did they attract hummingbirds, or bees?

This particular tobacco, Nicotiana apis, was bred for possible use in making pharmaceuticals. For that, Mundell said, they wanted plants that looked different from regular tobacco, so the plants couldn't be mixed up with tobacco intended for cigarettes.

And most importantly, it had to be incapable of producing seeds or cross-pollinating, so that no genes inserted to produce drugs could escape into other tobacco, he said.

But field production of pharmaceuticals in tobacco never really materialized. And Mundell wasn't really sure what to do with the hybrids he'd created.

In 2011, he had some left from a plot grown in Woodford County and put them in a greenhouse over the winter. These plants — which bloom copiously and continuously because they are sterile — thrived, grew enormous, and were covered with flowers.

"Every time we bumped into the plant, nectar would rain down on us," Mundell said. He would come out of the greenhouse covered in sticky drops. One night, he said, he woke up and thought, I wonder how much sugar is in that nectar? Could it help the bees?

The next morning he checked, and the sugar content was off the charts. Mundell asked an entomologist, what would be a good number for nectar? Eleven percent and higher is acceptable, he was told. Nectar from Mundell's tobacco was at least 20 percent.

And he remembered that in 2007, he had seen his honeybees all over the flowering sterile tobacco. That year there was a terrible drought, and almost nothing else was blooming to feed the bees. And the honey he harvested from the hive had a unique characteristic: It didn't crystallize. Still hasn't, to this day, he said.

He went to beekeepers and asked them to try his flowers. In 2013, the weather was very wet and the bees didn't forage the tobacco. And the flowers were small, too small in diameter for honeybees to easily get inside at the nectar.

So Mundell went back into the greenhouse and recrossed his plants to breed some with bigger, more open flowers.

Last summer, thousands of those plants went into the field at Spindletop and to beekeepers around Kentucky and elsewhere.

"If beekeepers could get their bees to forage this, build up their stores and actually produce a surplus, there's a chance that they could have a fall honey harvest, and if it proves that this is honey that doesn't readily crystallize, they could sell it as a value-added product," Mundell said while walking around his plants last summer.

He even sent some to Madison, Wis., to a group that grows flowers for migrating hummingbirds. Maybe the plant could prove a good hummingbird feeder.

"We've seen a lot of hummingbirds, especially in Woodford County," Mundell said. "They were buzzing us in the field."

Last summer, he thought his efforts had worked.

"On Monday, Aug. 20, (the honeybees) were in it like I remembered in 2007," Mundell said. "There were so many it made you nervous to be around them. I thought, 'all right, they'd found it.' But by that Friday, there weren't any bees. They'd moved on."

Fast-forward to the end of the growing year, when Mundell got reports from people who took his tobacco plants.

"For the second year in a row, the bees never got into the hybrid plant," Mundell said. "At least the honeybees. The bumblebees went nuts on it. That was pretty much the consensus of everyone. What it boils down to is it was another wet summer."

Bees have "floral fidelity," he said. They will feed on the same plants as long as there is nectar there. Plus, they don't like to compete with other bees if they don't have to, so with bumblebees all over the flowers, the honeybees stayed away, he thinks.

As for the hummingbird feeders, "not a single one of them came back with anything positive," he said. "They all felt like this was a plant that could attract hummingbirds because of the nectar and the shape of the plant. But if there were other plants around, the hummingbirds preferred that."

Mundell is pondering what to try next year, he said.

The hummingbird people are out, he said. But beekeepers remain interested.

At the Kentucky Farm Bureau convention in Louisville in early December, Mundell heard from several beekeepers who want to keep going. Honeybees are in desperate straits; mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder has killed off such huge numbers of bees that the bee pollinating industry is on the verge of on an agricultural crisis, according to the USDA's Agricultural Research Service.

They are interested in anything that might help. Each of Mundell's tobacco plants produces about 10,000 flowers in a summer, each loaded with highly nutritious nectar, if only the bees would eat it. And they might — if things get bad enough again.

"If it turns dry, most of the beekeepers said they would like to have this, because there wouldn't be anything else," he said.

In the meantime, Mundell is thinking about another possibility: Although honeybees weren't that into his plants, bumblebees couldn't get enough.

"I had 2,000 bumblebees per day, I guarantee," he said. "There is lot of talk about native bees pollinating because of the problems with honeybees. And they need to eat, too, when it's dry."

He plans to set out his special tobacco plants in 2015 and watch.

"We still have our bees at the farm and we're going to put our plants out," he said. "And I feel pretty confident participants in the study will still want plants. A good beekeeper monitors his bees, and if things do dry up, they will feed sugar water or high fructose corn syrup so the stores build up. These past few years they haven't had to do that as much. But if it's dry, they might."

Then, the bees might return to his tobacco plants and use the nectar for honey again. "And if that honey doesn't crystallize, it's a bonus."