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Big bumblebees learn locations of best flowers - University of Exeter

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

pollen covered bumblebee on pink open faced flower
Credit Natalie Hempel de Ibarra

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

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

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 Natalie Hempel de Ibarra, Associate Professor at Exeter's Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour. "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 (sugar) 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 paper, published in the journal Current Biology, is entitled: "Small and large bumblebees invest differently when learning about flowers." (open access)

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