Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Bumblebees fly 'a mile' for food

Hungry bumblebees travel more than a mile to find food, a study has found

Hungry bumblebees travel more than a mile to find food, a study has found.

Ecologists took samples from more than 3,000 living bees from five different species and mapped how far they travelled from their nest.

The study, led by the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, found that while on average the insects would travel between 268 to 553 metres (880 to 1,800 feet), bees living in areas where there were fewer flowers would fly more than two kilometres (1.2 miles).

It is hoped the findings could help improve conditions for the vital pollinators.

Professor Andrew Bourke, a behavioural ecologist and evolutionary biologist at the university, said: "We hope that, by providing detailed insights into how bumblebees move around landscapes, our results will lead to improved interventions for bees so that wildflowers and crops can continue to benefit from their essential pollination services."

Despite their size and conspicuous colouring, bumblebees have traditionally been difficult to study in the wild because their nests are almost impossible to find.

But scientists from the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), the UEA, University of Bristol and Institute of Zoology managed to take DNA samples from 2,577 worker and 537 queen bees.

This information was used to group them into 2,000 colonies and then mapped against the landscape to estimate how far they ventured from home.

Dr Matt Heard, of the CEH, said: "All workers in a bumblebee colony are daughters of a singly-mated queen, which means they are highly related in genetic terms.

"We decided to exploit this interesting aspect of their biology using a novel combination of genetics, field studies and landscape modelling.

"By using the secrets hidden within the DNA of bumblebees we can start to understand how queens and their colonies are using the landscape around them.

"Most importantly, we can ask whether conservation schemes to improve the countryside for bees, like planting more flowers on farmland, are having a positive effect.

"For example, reducing the distance that bumblebees have to fly to find food might increase their chances of survival into the next generation because they can devote more energy to reproduction.

"Our findings could help land managers to plan schemes to help conserve bumblebee populations in both agricultural and urban areas, and to enhance pollination services for crops and biodiversity."

The next stage of the research will use mathematical models to produce a "bees' eye view" of the landscape.

The results of the research, funded by the Insect Pollinators Initiative, will be presented at Intecol, the world's largest ecology conference, in London.

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