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Bees assess the quality of the pollen using a combination of senses

Tiny, yet extremely important creatures, bees are known to be good at navigating fields to find the best areas for pollen harvesting. But how do they decide which flowers are best? They travel very long distances as if they know where most of the flowers are. A new research from the University of Exeter revealed that bees use a combination of their senses and memories of previous experiences when hunting for pollen.

Bees do not usually taste the pollen to know if its good  they rely on a combination of other senses and memory. Image credit: Prosthetic Head via Wikimedia, CC-BY-SA-4.0

Bees do not usually taste the pollen to know if it’s good – they rely on a combination of other senses and memory. Image credit: Prosthetic Head via Wikimedia, CC-BY-SA-4.0

There is a belief in the scientific community that bees base their decisions on the taste of the flower alone. However, such explanation disregards other senses that bees have. Now scientists say that they probably assess each flower using combination of their senses, including taste. However, bees usually do not even eat pollen as they approach the flower – they pack it in special sacks on their legs and hair on their body. This has puzzled scientists for a very long time – how do bees know whether pollen from a particular flower is nutritious enough for their young back at the nest.

Scientists think that now, finally, they have an explanation – bees do not respond to one particular nutrient in the pollen. They asses each flower, using a variety of senses, searching for particular cues, which signal that pollen from that flower is good for their purpose. Furthermore, they memorize certain areas, knowing about the quality of the pollen there, and base their later foraging decisions on these memories. But what bees are looking for in the flower? Scientists say that we still do not know. For a long time they were thinking that crude protein content is the measure of quality for bees, but now they are not so sure. Yet it is very important to better our understanding about it.

Advancements in our understanding of the behaviour and neurobiology of bees would help us to understand, which plants they prefer. This would have tremendous consequences for agriculture biodiversity conservation. Dr Elizabeth Nicholls, first author of the study, concluded results: “we suggest that although bees may taste pollen during collection and use this nutritional information to guide their choices, they are also likely to pay attention to the strong odour and visual appearance of both pollen and the flower itself”. Also, back at the nest, bees communicate, exchanging information, which also influences their pollen hunting decisions.

People have recognized that bees are important for our civilization. Therefore, it is likely that more and more research efforts are going to be put into understanding their behaviour. This study is a good example of how little by little we change our idea about work of the bees – it is far more complex than we are used to believe.

Source: exeter.ac.uk