Detection and Learning of Floral Electric Fields by Bumblebees

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Science  05 Apr 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6128, pp. 66-69
DOI: 10.1126/science.1230883

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Flowers and Bees Have “Sparks”

Plants and their pollinators have very intimate interactions, as emphasized by the many classic cases of coevolution among species of each. Such close relationships require signaling between plant and pollinator. Coordination between plant signals and pollinator perception has been shown to exist in flower color, shape, and odor. Clarke et al. (p. 66, published online 21 February) report the potential for a distinct mode of plant–pollinator communication, electric fields. Natural floral electric fields, which are impacted by visits from naturally charged bees, were easily discriminated by bees, based on their level, pattern, and structure, and improved the rate at which bees remembered the location of a nectar reward.


Insects use several senses to forage, detecting floral cues such as color, shape, pattern, and volatiles. We report a formerly unappreciated sensory modality in bumblebees (Bombus terrestris), detection of floral electric fields. These fields act as floral cues, which are affected by the visit of naturally charged bees. Like visual cues, floral electric fields exhibit variations in pattern and structure, which can be discriminated by bumblebees. We also show that such electric field information contributes to the complex array of floral cues that together improve a pollinator’s memory of floral rewards. Because floral electric fields can change within seconds, this sensory modality may facilitate rapid and dynamic communication between flowers and their pollinators.

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