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Honey bees are very loyal to their flower patches

In a study focused on the foraging behavior of honey bees and bumble bees, researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service have uncovered some fascinating insights.

The results suggest that honey bees exhibit a higher degree of fidelity to their chosen flower patches compared to bumble bees.

The study was led by Johanne Brunet, an ecologist with the ARS Vegetable Crops Research Unit in Madison, Wisconsin, along with postdoctoral associate Fabiana Fragoso. 

An impressive 76% of honey bees in the study demonstrated a committed loyalty to the same plot of alfalfa flowers. They would routinely return to these locations for collecting more pollen and nectar.

In contrast, eastern bumble bees exhibited a slightly more nomadic approach, with only 47% revisiting the same flower patches.

Flower patch size

Interestingly, the study pointed out the pivotal role of flower patch size. Bumble bees showed a greater allegiance to larger flower patches, suggesting that they are influenced by the abundance and variety offered by these areas. 

However, honey bees appeared indifferent to the size of the flower patches, maintaining their loyalty irrespective of whether the patches were large or small.

The large patches studied were nearly 15 by 15 yards and contained 225 plants, more than double the 100 plants found in the smaller patches, which were about 10 by 10 yards.

Differences in flower patch fidelity

An animal or insect’s fidelity to a specific location is contingent on their robust spatial memory. This allows them to navigate intricate landscapes and repeatedly return to familiar sites. 

The researchers explained that both honey and bumble bees have demonstrated the ability to return to the same sites. Species-specific factors likely govern their differing degrees of patch fidelity.

The differences in patch fidelity may stem from distinct foraging behaviors exhibited by the two species. Bumble bees, characterized by their explorative nature, are prone to diverse foraging bouts. They often visit more than one flower type during a foraging event. 

On the other hand, honey bees possess a sophisticated communication system, epitomized by the famous “waggle dance.”

This unique behavior, performed by honey bee foragers upon returning to the hive, effectively shares the location of fruitful food sources with other members of the colony. In contrast, bumble bees do not perform this dance.

According to Brunet, the heightened patch fidelity displayed by honey bees might be indicative of a higher degree of risk aversion. We can understand this as a strategy aimed at preventing the squandering of energy and resources or minimizing potential encounters with predators.

Implications of the study

The implications of these findings stretch far beyond the distinct behaviors of these two bee species. A better understanding of the factors influencing patch fidelity could equip beekeepers, farmers, and conservation biologists with the knowledge needed to better support pollinator health. This would ultimately ensure successful crop pollination. 

The research, which is published in the journal Ecosphere, also offers potential insights into the mechanisms of gene flow. This is the process by which the gene pools of two distinct populations of the same species intermingle. 

“Bumble bees’ lower patch fidelity can translate into higher gene flow among the patches they visit, creating a higher probability for bumble bees to move genes longer distances,” said Brunet. “Higher gene flow in plant populations in the natural environment will also tend to homogenize their genetic diversity.”

More about honey bees

Honey bees are a subgroup of bees which represent a small fraction of the approximately 20,000 known species of bees. Honey bees are known for their role in pollination and for the production of honey and beeswax. There are several species of honey bees, with the most common being the Western honey bee (Apis mellifera).

Colony life

Honey bees are social insects, meaning they live in well-organized colonies that can contain up to 60,000 individuals. A colony typically consists of one queen, a few hundred drones (males), and tens of thousands of workers. The workers are infertile females.

The queen bee’s primary role is to reproduce. Workers perform a variety of tasks to maintain the colony. These include cleaning, feeding larvae, producing wax and constructing the hive, guarding the colony, and foraging for nectar and pollen. Drones are responsible for mating with a virgin queen, after which they die.

Nectar and honey

Honey bees produce honey from nectar, which they collect from flowers. The bees carry the nectar in a special stomach and once back in the hive, they pass it from bee to bee.

This process changes the nectar’s composition and protects it from bacteria. The bees then store the altered nectar in the wax cells of the hive. Neatly tucked away in the cells, it slowly dries out and turns into honey.

Vital for pollination

Honey bees are vital for pollination, which is the process by which plants reproduce. When a bee collects nectar from a flower, some pollen from the male parts of the flower sticks to the bee’s body. When the bee visits another flower, some of this pollen rubs off onto the female parts of the flower, fertilizing it and enabling the plant to produce fruit and seeds.

The worldwide decline in honey bee populations over recent years is a significant concern because of the bees’ role in pollination. This decline is believed to be due to a combination of factors, including pesticides, diseases, climate change, and habitat loss. Efforts to help sustain and increase honey bee populations are crucial to maintaining biodiversity and global food security.


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