Science

Big bumblebees ‘learn spots of best flowers'

University of Exeter scientists examined the ‘learning flights' which most bees perform after leaving flowers.

Big bumblebees take time to learn the locations of the best flowers, new research shows.

Meanwhile, smaller bumblebees – which have a shorter flight range and less carrying capacity – do not pay special attention to flowers with the richest nectar.

University of Exeter scientists examined the “learning flights” which most bees perform after leaving flowers.

Big bumblebees take time to learn the locations of the best flowers, new research shows (Natalie Hempel de Ibarra/University of Exeter/PA).
Big bumblebees take time to learn the locations of the best flowers, new research shows (Natalie Hempel de Ibarra/University of Exeter/PA)

Honeybees are known to perform such flights – and the study shows bumblebees do the same, repeatedly looking back to memorise a flower’s location.

“It might not be widely known that pollinating insects learn and develop individual flower preferences, but in fact bumblebees are selective,” said Professor Natalie Hempel de Ibarra.

“On leaving a flower, they can actively decide how much effort to put into remembering its location.

“The surprising finding of our study is that a bee’s size determines this decision making and the learning behaviour.”

In the study, captive bees visited artificial flowers containing sucrose solution of varying concentrations.

The larger the bee, the more its learning behaviour varied depending on the richness of the sucrose solution.

Smaller bees invested the same amount of effort in learning the locations of the artificial flowers, regardless of whether sucrose concentration was high or low.

“The differences we found reflect the different roles of bees in their colonies,” said Prof Hempel de Ibarra.

“Large bumblebees can carry larger loads and explore further from the nest than smaller ones.

“Small ones with a smaller flight range and carrying capacity cannot afford to be as selective, so they accept a wider range of flowers.

“These small bees tend to be involved more with tasks inside the nest – only going out to forage if food supplies in the colony are running low.”

The study, which was carried out in greenhouses at the University of Exeter, was conducted in collaboration with scientists from the University of Sussex.

– The paper, Small and large bumblebees invest differently when learning about flowers, is published in the journal Current Biology.

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