Scientists believe the secret to saving the British bumblebee is to simply grow plants with red or stripy flowers.
Bumblebee pollination is crucial to crop production in Britain but numbers have fallen by 15 per cent in the past two years and two species have died out since 1940.
But a three-year study carried out in Norfolk has revealed that bumblebees are drawn to striped flowers and use the lines formed as ”landing strips”.
They are also attracted to the colour red and experts hope the groundbreaking research will encourage gardeners to cultivate ”bee friendly” flowers.
Students spent four summers observing foraging patterns of bumblebees on a range of flowers at John Innes Centre, in Colney, Norfolk.
Prof Cathie Martin, from the John Innes Centre, said gardeners should plant more red and stripy flowers, such as snapdragons, to encourage pollination.
She said: ”Stripes following the veins of flowers are one of the most common floral pigmentation patterns so we thought that there must be some advantage for pollination.
”Stripes provide a visual guide for pollinators, directing them to the central platform and the entrance to the flower where the nectar and pollen can be found.
”We examined the origin of this trait and found that it has been retained through snapdragon ancestry.
”The selection pressure for this trait is only relaxed when full red pigmentation evolves as a species.”
The study revealed up four times more likely to pollenate red or striped flowers than pink, white, or ivory-coloured ones.
Bumblebees are susceptible to a variety of disease and environmental threats, some of which have increased significantly over the last five to ten years.
Climate change causing warmer winters and wetter summers has attributed to Britain’s bumblebee population dropping by between 10 and 15 per cent.
The work carried out by the John Innes Centre in partnership with Plant and Food Research in New Zealand and funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).
Pollinators such as bees learn and memorise floral signals, such as shape, scent, colour and pattern of pigmentation and return to flowers they have previously found food.
Prof Douglas Kell, chief executive of BBSRC, said: ”We are facing a fundamental problem with the decline of bees and other pollinators.
”They have an absolutely crucial role in pollinating many of our important crops – without them we will face higher food costs and potential shortages.
”Pollinator insects, such as honeybees, have a highly significant role in agriculture and any reduction in numbers is economically damaging and risks our food security.
”Much of our food on our plates is reliant on insect pollination. BBSRC is investing in research to understand how we can arrest pollinator decline and this study shows how horticulturalists and gardeners can encourage honeybee populations.”
Collaborators on the project from New Zealand also analysed how the stripy patterns are formed along the veins of the common snapdragon.
They showed that two signals interact to create the stripes.
Dr Kathy Schwinn, from the New Zealand Institute for Plant and Food research,
said: ”Complex colour patterns such as spots and stripes are common in nature but the way they are formed is poorly understood.
”We found that one signal comes from the veins of the petals and one from the skin of the petals, the epidermis. Where these signals intersect, the production of red anthocyanin pigments is induced.”