Big bumblebees shop and recall the best flowers that they frequent.

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Bumblebees are slower at learning the position of new flowers due to increased stinging time. Those smaller bumblebees, which have a shorter flight range and comparatively smaller carrying capacity, neglect the flowers with the greatest amount of nectar.

Researchers at the University of Exeter researched how “learning flights” are spent after bees leave flowers. Honey bees are known to perform such foraging trips as well as bumblebees, and the studies show that they do the same, recalling the position of a flower each time.

“It may not be common knowledge that pollinating insects learn and develop individual flower preferences, but in fact bumblebees are selective,” says Natalie Hempel de Ibarra, associate professor at the Centre for Research in Animal Behavior at Exeter.

When leaving a flower, they may decide to consciously remember the location or not.

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

In the experiment, captive bees were observed visiting artificial flowers that had varying concentration of sucrose solution.

The honey bees’ learning activity was calculated by different parameters such as the richness of the sucrose solution.

Larger bees were just as likely to engage in knowing the position of the artificial flowers as bees of average size.

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

Freshwater species of bumblebees can bear greater loads and travel greater distances than saltwater species. Smaller bumblebees because of their smaller flight envelope and limited carrying ability, opt to visit a larger variety of flowers.

“These small bees tend to be more concerned with tasks within the nest – they only go out to forage when food supplies in the colony are low.”

Reference: “Small and large bumblebees invest differently when learning about flowers”

DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2020.11.062
The study was conducted in collaboration with scientists at the University of Sussex.

The bees were monitored in greenhouses at the University of Exeter’s award-winning Streatham Campus, and Professor Hempel de Ibarra thanked the university’s Grounds and Gardens team for their ongoing support.

The study was funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

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