BUMBLEBEES are one of the best creatures in the natural world at spotting the richest pickings, a new study has revealed.
The insects are able to pick out the best pollen from afar by singling out floral features such as petal colour, according to University of Sussex experts.
This evolved skill allows them to take the best energy-giving nectar and pollen back to their hive with the minimal amount of effort.
Dr Elizabeth Nicholls, from the University of Sussex, who led the study, said: “Bees need to be able to select flowers providing the most nutritious food for rearing their young.
“Since bumblebees don't eat pollen when foraging, it was unclear if or how they might be able to assess differences in quality. Here we’ve shown that they are able to detect differences in pollen, even before landing, which means they may be able to tell, just from the colour of the petals, which flowers are worth visiting.
“We already know a lot about how and what bees learn when collecting nectar from flowers, but since bees don’t eat pollen when foraging, we were interested to see whether they could still learn which flowers to visit when collecting this resource.”
The study of bumblebees observed under controlled conditions showed how they quickly learn which flowers provide the most nutritious pollen for rearing their young.
Their ability to make decisions about pollen quality was tested by presenting them with four different coloured discs containing varying concentrations of pollen. The results of the study have been published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.
Co-author Dr Natalie Hempel de Ibarra said: “There is still very little known about how bees decide which flowers to visit for pollen collection. Easily learning floral features based on pollen rewards, without needing any nectar rewards, is a fast and effective way to recognise those flower species which bees have previously experienced to be the best ones.”
The University of Sussex is home to the largest research centre in the UK dedicated to the study of honey bees and other social insects that live in a colony such as ants, wasps and termites.