London | Experienced bumblebees do not share their pollinating knowledge with less qualified bees, a new study has found. Like other pollinators, bees face complex routing challenges when collecting nectar and pollen – they have to learn how to link patches of flowers together in the most efficient way, to minimise their travel distance and flight costs, just like in a travelling salesman problem, said Mathieu Lihoreau from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL).
We wanted to monitor the way bumblebees behave when they bump into each other at flowers – would they compete, attack each other, or tolerate each other, said Lars Chittka from QMUL. The researchers set up one of the largest outdoor flight cages ever used in bee research – a massive 20 metres by 40 metres.
They installed a range of artificial flowers, fitted with motion-sensitive video cameras, which had controlled nectar flow rates for the bees to visit. In order to get the bees to only visit the artificial flowers, they had to mow the lawn every day to get rid of all the natural ones. Then the researchers allowed two bees in at a time – one more experienced resident, and one newcomer.
They predicted that the newcomers could save some time by simply copying the foraging route of more experienced resident bees. While the newcomers did try to copy the choices of seasoned foragers, the more experienced bees really did not appreciate their behaviour, and frequently attacked the newcomers and tried to evict them from flowers. Our study is the first to examine the foraging routes followed by multiple bees at the same time, said Lihoreau.
Responses to intense initial competition between bees for nectar could explain how pollinators gradually learn to visit different patches of flowers across the landscape, he said. This work helps us understand how animals with relatively simple brains find workable solutions to complex route-finding problems, said Nigel Raine from University of London.
Understanding how bees find and compete for flowers in the landscape is a critical first step to conserving these animals, and the essential pollination services they provide to crops and wild plants, Raine said.
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