My lab addresses questions in nutritional ecology, a field at the intersection of behavioral ecology, environmental physiology, and molecular biology. Specifically, we study nutritional ecology in insect pollinators to investigate three broad questions. See Goings-on for our most recent projects/updates!

How do organisms identify supplemental nutritional resources?

Insect pollinators get most of their nutrients from flowers–pollen provides protein and fats, nectar provides carbohydrates, and both provide trace amounts of vitamins and minerals. But sometimes, insects visit non-floral resources to supplement their floral diet. My past research shows that honey bees visit “dirty” water sources as a way to supplement the minerals in their floral diet and stingless bees visit carrion (or raw chicken). In my lab, we investigate which non-floral sources insect pollinators use, when/how they use them, and what this means for pollinator health in a changing environment.

How does nutrition affect multi-species interactions?

Insect pollinators interact with many species of plants but there’s another species interaction that sometimes gets overlooked: myrmecophily, or caterpillars that love ants.

As caterpillars, Lycaenid butterflies interact with ants. When threatened, caterpillars signal ants for help using scent or sound. When the threat has passed, caterpillars reward ants by exuding a sugar droplet. My lab examines the role of nutrition in this symbiosis. Caterpillar nutrition may affect the nutritional value of the sugar reward, and thus affect ant-tending behavior and caterpillar survival.


How does nutrition affect disease response?

It’s no secret that many of our native insect pollinator populations are in decline and it’s harder to manage honey bee colonies than ever before. While there are likely multiple factors at play (land use change, use of pesticides, climate change etc.), my lab is interested in how nutrition affects honey bee response to disease. If insect pollinators are able to get a well-rounded diet, they will likely be better equipped to deal with various stressors.

As social insects, honey bees are also an interesting system to investigate how nutrition affects a common cost living in a large group: disease spread.

Current Projects

  • Frosted elfin butterfly on leaf
  • Bees on yellow flower
  • Blue butterfly on daisy
Frosted elfins

Undergraduates are using satellite imagery to determine suitability of local sites for studying the rare butterfly, the frosted elfin. Soon, we will visit the most suitable sites and search for butterflies!

Providence pollinators

Undergraduates are surveying campus and our two natively planted BioSwales to determine on-campus pollinator diversity and which wetland plants might be “best” for pollinators

Blue butterflies

Continuing from my post-doc work in the Pacific Northwest, I am working on data analysis to determine how a changing climate might affect butterfly flight season as well as availability of nectar and host plants (both nutritionally important!).

Peer-Reviewed Publications

*undergraduate author

Bonoan RE, Crone EE, Edwards CB, Schultz CB. 2021. Changes in phenology and abundance of an at-risk butterfly. Journal of Insect Conservation.

Dorian NN, Bonoan RE. 2021. Stingless bees (Apidae: Meliponini) seek sodium at carrion baits in Costa Rica. Ecological Entomology.

Bonoan RE, Starks PT. 2020. Western honey bee (Apis mellifera). Starr CK, editor. Encyclopedia of Social Insects

Bonoan RE, Iglesias Feliciano PM,* Chang J,* Starks PT. 2020. Social benefits require a community: the influence of colony size on behavioral immunity in honey bees. Apidologie

Bonoan RE, Gonzalez J,* Starks PT. 2020. The perils of forcing a generalist to be a specialist: lack of dietary essential amino acids impacts honey bee pollen foraging and colony growth. Journal of Apicultural Research.  

Wilson-Rich N, Bonoan RE, Taylor E,* Lwanga L,* Starks PT. 2019. An improved method for testing invertebrate encapsulation response as shown in the honey beeInsectes Sociaux.

Bonoan RE, O’Connor LD,* Starks PT. 2018. Seasonality of honey bee (Apis mellifera) micronutrient supplementation and environmental limitationJournal of Insect Physiology.

Bonoan RE, Tai TM,* Tagle Rodriguez M,* Feller L,* Daddario SR,* Czaja R,* O’Connor LD,* Burruss G,* Starks PT. 2017. Seasonality of salt foraging in honey bees (Apis mellifera)Ecological Entomology

Bonoan RE, Starks PT. 2016. Observation Hive Marking Apparatus (OHMA): an inexpensive method for mass-marking honey bees in observation hivesBee World.

Dorian NN,* Bonoan RE. 2016. Salt foraging of stingless bees at La Selva Biological Station, Costa RicaBee World

Bonoan RE, Al-Wathiqui N, Lewis S. 2015. Linking larval nutrition to adult reproductive traits in the European corn borer, Ostrinia NubilalisPhysiological Entomology.

Bonoan RE, Goldman RR,* Wong PY, Starks PT. 2014. Vasculature of the hive: heat dissipation in the honey bee (Apis mellifera) hive. Naturwissenschaften.

Bonoan R, Clodius F, Dawson A, Caetano S, Yeung E, Paz-y-Miño GC. 2013. Dominance Hierarchy Formation and Potential Applications in Laboratory Research Using a Model Organism, the Zebra Finch (Taeniopygia guttata)BIOS.

Popular Science Publications

Bonoan RE, Starks PT. 2020. Honey bees can’t practice social distancing, so they stay healthy in close quarters by working togetherThe Conversation.
Bonoan RE. 2020 (Mar/Apr). Watch Me Work. S’more Magazine
Dorian N, Bonoan RE. 2020 (Apr). Meat loving “vulture bees” collect minerals from carrion. 2 Million Blossoms.
Bonoan, RE. 2020 (Jan). Distracted by bees. 2 Million Blossoms.
Bonoan, RE. 2018 (Jun). Honey bees seek potassium and calcium as they prepare to overwinter. American Bee Journal.
Bonoan, RE. 2016 (Mar). Why do honey bees like dirty water? American Bee Journal.
Bonoan, RE. 2016 (Dec). Decisive dancing in honey beesGeorgia Beekeepers Association Newsletter: Spilling the Honey
Bonoan R. 2016. Pollinator decline and self-medicationBee Culture.
Bonoan RE. 2015 (Nov). Why do honey bees like dirty water? American Beekeeping Federation E-Buzz.

Interested in joining the lab?