Foraging bumblebees 'follow trend'
Published 04/04/2013 | 16:36
Bumblebees follow the latest buzz when they go out in search of food.
Like trendy shoppers drawn to the same clothes, they pick out the flowers that are most popular with their hive mates, research has shown.
Popular flowers are also those likely to contain the most energy-rich nectar.
"Learning where to find nectar by watching others seems fantastically complex for a tiny bee, but it's something that almost any animal could do, in the right circumstances," said study leader Dr Elli Leadbeater from the Zoological Society of London.
Worker bees may visit thousands of flowers every day in their search for nectar.
Adopting "flower fashion" by copying other bees' choices may be a shortcut to success, say the scientists writing in the journal Current Biology.
The researchers conducted experiments in wooden laboratory "flight arenas" stocked with artificial flowers. Bees were trained to know that sugar could be found on flowers when other foragers were present.
From behind a screen, one group of bees then watched as their companions chose a particular flower colour and ignored another. When the test bees later had their own choice of flower, they copied the selection made earlier.
"Naive foragers" who had not learned to associate other bees with nectar did not copy behaviour the same way.
The scientists also found that bees consider whether or not their companions are making good choices. In the laboratory, test bees did not copy other bees if they knew they were visiting bitter-tasting flowers. Instead, they actively avoided flower colours associated with the bitter taste of quinine.