A team of researchers in Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) led by Mathieu Lihoreau conducted a study to learn more about the foraging behavior of bumblebees. The study found that more experienced bumblebees do not readily share foraging techniques. They, in fact, compete with the newbies in pollinating patches of flowers.
Pollinating does not happen by accident. Bees need to carefully study complicated routing challenges as they collect pollen and nectar from flower to flower. This task involves knowing how to efficiently pollinate flowers with minimal travel time and distance.
"Understanding how bees find and compete for flowers in the landscape is a critical first step to conserving these insects and the essential pollination services they provide to crops and wild plants," said Nigel Raine, an environmental sciences professor and study author.
The researchers wanted to find out if bees imitate the experienced bees' sequence of visiting flowers in order to know the best route to take to improve their foraging technique. It was thought that allowing newcomer bees to imitate would save more pollinating time.
The study, which was published in the journal PLOS ONE, was the first to look at the foraging routes and techniques of multiple bees in a given time. The researchers wanted to see the behavior of bumblebees when they interact with each other while in a flower.
The proponents of the study set up a 20 x 40 meter outdoor flight cage and installed a variety of artificial flowers with controlled nectar flow rates. The artificial flowers have motion-sensitive video cameras to capture the activity.
For a given flower, two bees - one newbie and one experienced were allowed to visit a flower.
The flower visitation patterns were carefully mapped, interactions were quantified, and foraging successes were compared over one whole day.
It was observed that when a newbie tries to copy the sequence of the experienced foragers, they are often attacked and evicted from the flowers. This was despite the availability of other patches of flowers inside the flight cage.
This intense competition among foragers sheds light on the process of pollination and how these pollinators eventually learn, on their own, to visit a variety of flowers in a given landscape.
"This work helps us understand how animals with relatively simple brains find workable solutions to complex route-finding problems," said Raine.
These foraging habits of well-known pollinators are important for crops, as another study claims that the bumblebee population is facing extinction due to climate change.
Photo: Ervins Strauhmanis | Flickr