Nav: Home

To buzz or to scrabble? To foraging bees, that's the question

June 30, 2017

Imagine going to the supermarket to stock up on groceries but coming home empty-handed because you just couldn't figure out how to work the shopping cart or figure out how to get to the ice cream tubs in the freezer aisle.

Welcome to the life of a bumblebee.

Gathering sweet nectar from flowers, it turns out, is much more difficult than one might think, and it requires a lengthy learning process. By the time a bee has figured out how to efficiently pry open the lips of a snapdragon flower, for example, most likely it has made dozens, if not hundreds, of floral visits.

How does a bee in charge of shopping for food needed to raise dozens of hungry larvae back in the hive learn to navigate the multitude of floral architectures it may encounter during an average workday, let alone over the course of its life?

Mostly by what biologists call associative learning, more widely known as trial and error, researchers have found. But while extensive research -- starting with famous bee researcher and Nobel laureate Karl von Frisch a century ago -- has focused on uncovering how bees forage for nectar, much less is known about how bees go about collecting pollen, which constitutes the most important protein source for the developing brood in the hive.

Avery Russell, Stephen Buchman and Daniel Papaj in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona decided to take a closer look. In a new paper published in the journal Behavioral Ecology, they tell a fascinating story of what is involved in a seemingly simple process of a bumblebee visiting a flower to gather pollen. And for the first time, they have untangled the subtle cues that a bee looks for when she visits a flower in search for pollen.

"For a long time, we have known that bees can learn all kinds of cues -- tactile, visual and olfactory -- when going after nectar rewards," says Russell, the study's first author. "When you open a can, you have to use a can opener, then use your fingers to pry the lid open. A bee might have to pop open the flower's petals, and might have to try many times over multiple trips until they get good at it. But not much was known in the context of pollen rewards."

Specifically, Russell and his co-authors wanted to know if bees need to learn in order to collect pollen efficiently from flowers that vary in their form. The research suggests they don't, and they don't need to.

"Our findings suggest that unlike nectar foraging, which requires complex learning behavior, bumblebees already know how to collect pollen," says Russell, who did the research as a doctoral student in the UA's Graduate Interdisciplinary Program in Entomology and Insect Science, "and they do it by switching between two responses that are seemingly hardwired into their brains."

Once a bumblebee touches down on a flower, it wastes no time. If it senses that the anthers are laden with abundant pollen just waiting to be shaken off like ripened apples from a tree, the bee does the obvious: a behavior that bee researchers call "scrabbling." Using its mandibles and legs, the bee brushes the pollen grains onto its body, then combs them off into collection baskets located on each of its hind legs.

"If you picture a happy toddler in a play pit filled with plastic balls, you get the idea of scrabbling," Russell says.

However, some flowers make their pollen grains more difficult to access, or sport intricate anther designs that dispense only a little bit of pollen at a time.

"That way, the plant makes sure pollinators don't eat it all, but carry it to other flowers for pollination instead, and also leave some for other visitors as well, so the flowers aren't limited to a single pollinator," he says.

When visiting some of these trickier flowers, Russell's team found, bumblebees switch to a different behavior called sonication -- or, in more familiar terms, buzzing. Not unlike a sonicating toothbrush that vibrates to shake plaque from teeth, a sonicating bee vibrates vigorously to free pollen grains hidden inside the flower.

The team observed that the bees switched between these two motor regimes depending on chemical and mechanical cues: They scrabbled when pollen was abundant, and sonicated when pollen was scarce, either because the flower already had been depleted or because its pollen is less accessible by design.

To tease apart the cues that trigger each behavior, the researchers made artificial flowers and treated some of them with chemical extracts from natural anthers. Bees visiting a surrogate flower without extract didn't stick around and took off again in search of more rewarding offerings. When they encountered a foam flower without pollen but with the chemical cue, they buzzed them in a futile attempt to harvest the nonexistent pollen. And when they sensed pollen grains, even artificial ones, scrabbling ensued.

"Bumblebees tend to sonicate on pollen-concealing anthers right away, but they also buzz accessible anthers when they can't detect pollen by touch," Russell says. "We think they do that in an effort to collect the dregs from a flower after most of its pollen has been harvested."

Being able to switch between two programmed routines allows bees to effectively collect pollen from flowers in many different shapes and forms, the researchers conclude. This flexibility also may explain a fact that had evolutionary biologists stumped for a long time: Flowers with concealed pollen stores evolved many times independently, suggesting that pollinators must always have had a way to harvest pollen from them, or else the co-evolution between the two would have led to a dead end and not survived.

"Researchers used to think that floral sonication is a behavior only used to collect pollen from concealed pollen stores," Russell says, "but because we often observe bees buzzing on flowers with accessible pollen, we conclude that it's a behavior that has evolved as a general strategy to collect pollen from any type of flower."
-end-


University of Arizona

Related Bees Articles:

How bees live with bacteria
More than 90 percent of all bee species are not organized in colonies, but fight their way through life alone.
Where are the bees? Tracking down which flowers they pollinate
Earlham Institute (EI), with the University of East Anglia (UEA), have developed a new method to rapidly identify the sources of bee pollen to understand which flowers are important for bees.
Pesticides deliver a one-two punch to honey bees
A new paper in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry reveals that adjuvants, chemicals commonly added to pesticides, amplify toxicity affecting mortality rates, flight intensity, colony intensity, and pupae development in honey bees.
Bees can count with just four nerve cells in their brains
Bees can solve seemingly clever counting tasks with very small numbers of nerve cells in their brains, according to researchers at Queen Mary University of London.
Trees for bees
Planting more hedgerows and trees could hold the key to helping UK bees thrive once again, a new study argues.
The secret to better berries? Wild bees
New research shows wild bees are essential for producing larger and better blueberry yields - with plumper, faster-ripening berries.
How do flying bees make perfect turns?
Bees adjust their speed to keep turning forces constant, new research from the Queensland Brain Institute, The University of Queensland shows.
Bees on the brink
Using an innovative robotic platform to observe bees' behavior, Harvard researchers showed that, following exposure to neonicotinoid pesticides -- the most commonly-used class of pesticides in agriculture -- bees spent less time nursing larvae and were less social that other bees.
Why do we love bees but hate wasps?
A lack of understanding of the important role of wasps in the ecosystem and economy is a fundamental reason why they are universally despised whereas bees are much loved, according to UCL-led research.
The more pesticides bees eat, the more they like them
Bumblebees acquire a taste for pesticide-laced food as they become more exposed to it, a behavior showing possible symptoms of addiction.
More Bees News and Bees Current Events

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2019.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Risk
Why do we revere risk-takers, even when their actions terrify us? Why are some better at taking risks than others? This hour, TED speakers explore the alluring, dangerous, and calculated sides of risk. Guests include professional rock climber Alex Honnold, economist Mariana Mazzucato, psychology researcher Kashfia Rahman, structural engineer and bridge designer Ian Firth, and risk intelligence expert Dylan Evans.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#541 Wayfinding
These days when we want to know where we are or how to get where we want to go, most of us will pull out a smart phone with a built-in GPS and map app. Some of us old timers might still use an old school paper map from time to time. But we didn't always used to lean so heavily on maps and technology, and in some remote places of the world some people still navigate and wayfind their way without the aid of these tools... and in some cases do better without them. This week, host Rachelle Saunders...
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dolly Parton's America: Neon Moss
Today on Radiolab, we're bringing you the fourth episode of Jad's special series, Dolly Parton's America. In this episode, Jad goes back up the mountain to visit Dolly's actual Tennessee mountain home, where she tells stories about her first trips out of the holler. Back on the mountaintop, standing under the rain by the Little Pigeon River, the trip triggers memories of Jad's first visit to his father's childhood home, and opens the gateway to dizzying stories of music and migration. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.