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Social bees travel greater distances to find food

A new study from the University of Bristol has found that social bees, such as honeybees and bumblebees, venture further for pollen and nectar. This has implications for predicting pollination services and for conservation strategies.

The study was carried out during lockdown. The team used coding to build a simulation model and literature to find the existing data on bee foraging ranges of 90 species. An agent-based model was developed to test how social, dietary, and environmental factors affect foraging ranges. 

Social bees travel greater distances as a result of body size, colony size, communication and flower constancy. For instance, the bumblebee has a larger body size and therefore, greater foraging ranges. Bees from larger colonies will experience more competition if they stay close to the nest so travel becomes necessary. 

Social bees have evolved communication methods to allow foragers to share information about highly rewarding flower species. As a result, more bees will have a preference for the same kind of flowers. They tend to visit one type of flower during a foraging trip, ignoring viable alternatives and forcing travel to find their preferred flower.

Social bees are amongst the most important pollinators and are currently under threat. These findings have implications for their protection and the conservation of endangered plants which they pollinate.

 “Our findings suggest that solitary bees might be most affected by human-caused habitat loss and fragmentation because they will struggle more to find suitable food sources at greater distances,” explained study lead author Dr. Christoph Grueter.

“Social bees might be particularly important for the protection of endangered plant species that exist only in isolated patches. Since many social bee species can be kept in hives, we could use our understanding of their foraging ranges in targeted ways to aid the pollination of plants in remote areas.”

Next, the researchers plan to confirm the findings in the bees’ natural environment and determine which bees are most and least affected by habitat loss and fragmentation. This will help researchers to understand how reforestation and rewilding projects might affect different pollinator groups.

The research is published in the journal Current Biology.

By Katherine Bucko, Staff Writer

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