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Bumble bees damage plant leaves and accelerate flower production when pollen is scarce

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Science  22 May 2020:
Vol. 368, Issue 6493, pp. 881-884
DOI: 10.1126/science.aay0496

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Bumble bee gardeners

Bumble bees rely heavily on pollen resources for essential nutrients as they build their summer colonies. Therefore, we might expect that annual differences in the availability of these resources must simply be tolerated, but Pashalidou et al. made observations suggesting that bees may have strategies to cope with irregular seasonal flowering (see the Perspective by Chittka). When faced with a shortage of pollen, bumble bees actively damaged plant leaves in a characteristic way, and this behavior resulted in earlier flowering by as much as 30 days. Experimenters were not able to fully replicate the results with their own damage, suggesting that there is a distinct method that the bees use to stimulate earlier flowering.

Science, this issue p. 881; see also p. 824

Abstract

Maintaining phenological synchrony with flowers is a key ecological challenge for pollinators that may be exacerbated by ongoing environmental change. Here, we show that bumble bee workers facing pollen scarcity damage leaves of flowerless plants and thereby accelerate flower production. Laboratory studies revealed that leaf-damaging behavior is strongly influenced by pollen availability and that bee-damaged plants flower significantly earlier than undamaged or mechanically damaged controls. Subsequent outdoor experiments showed that the intensity of damage inflicted varies with local flower availability; furthermore, workers from wild colonies of two additional bumble bee species were also observed to damage plant leaves. These findings elucidate a feature of bumble bee worker behavior that can influence the local availability of floral resources.

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