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Scientists train honeybees with scent to boost sunflower production

Researchers have been training honeybees to pick up on the scent of specific crops to seek them out for pollination, and a new study from Cell Press suggests that this strategy is effective. The experts report that honeybees prompted with odors similar to sunflowers supported a significant increase in sunflower crop production.

“We show that it’s possible to condition honeybees to a rewarded odor inside the colony, and this experience modifies the bees’ odor-guided behaviors later,” said study co-author Walter Farina of the Universidad de Buenos Aires. “The most surprising and relevant result is that the foraging preferences for the target crop are so prolonged and intensive that it promoted significant increases in the crop yields.”

The team had previously demonstrated that honeybees could develop long-term memories related to food scents inside the nest. They also found that these memories could influence which plants the bees pollinated.

In order to train bees to forage on sunflowers, the researchers developed a simple synthetic combination of odors that the bees would associate with the natural floral scent of sunflowers. Next, they supplied the hives with food that contained their new formula. 

The investigation confirmed that early experiences with the scent of sunflowers established memories that later influenced the bees’ foraging preferences – which the experts derived by decoding their waggle dances.

The scent training led the bees to visit sunflowers more often. Furthermore, bees that had trained bees also brought more sunflower pollen back to the hive. Ultimately, sunflower seed production was boosted by 29 to 57 percent.

“Through this procedure, it is possible to bias honeybee foraging activity and increase yields significantly,” said Farina. “In other words, pollination services might be improved in pollinator-dependent crops by using simple mimic odors as part of a precision pollination strategy.”

The researchers are currently working to apply their technique to other pollinator-dependent crops, such as almonds, pears, and apples. The goal is to improve pollination efficiency and increase the productivity of many important agricultural crops.

The study is published in the journal Current Biology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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