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February 10, 2021

from the University of Sussex

As abundant and widespread bees, it is common for both bumblebees and honey bees to feed on the same species of flower in the summer, be it in the UK or in many other countries.

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However, researchers at the University of Sussex’s Apiculture and Social Insect Laboratory (LASI) have found that different bees dominate certain types of flowers and have figured out why.

Studying 22 species of flowers in southern England and Analyzing the behavior of more than 1000 bees, they found that “energy efficiency” is a key factor in promoting competition.

The body weight of the bees and the frequency with which a bee visits flowers determine how energy efficient they are are. Body weight determines the energy consumption when flying and walking between flowers. A bee is twice as heavy and uses twice as much energy. The rate at which a bee visits flowers, the number of flowers per minute, determines how much nectar and therefore energy it collects. Together, the relationship between these factors determines the energy efficiency of foraging.

Beekeeping Professor Francis Ratnieks said: « While they are feeding on the same flowers, we often find that bumblebees have more honeybees on a particular type of flower than on of another species growing nearby.

« Notably, differences in energy efficiency when foraging almost completely explained why bumblebees predominated in some types of flowers and honeybees predominated in others.

 » Essentially, bumblebees have over honeybees the advantage of being able to visit flowers faster so they can collect more nectar (energy), but the disadvantage that they are larger and therefore use more nectar energy to forage. However, for some types of flowers, bumblebees gave an overall benefit to honey bees others. « 

In the study published in the journal Ecology, the researchers used stopwatches to determine how many flowers a bee visited in a minute. Using a portable electronic scale to weigh each bee, the researchers found that bumblebees weigh almost twice as much as honey bees on average. This means that they use almost twice as much energy as honey bees. The stopwatch results showed they visited flowers twice as often as honeybees, which offsets the energy efficiency.

For some types of flowers like lavender, where bumblebees dominated, they visited flowers almost three times as often as honeybees.

The differences in the morphology of the flowers had a big impact on how energy efficient the two types of bees were. Ling heather, with its mass of tiny flowers, was better suited to the nimbler honeybees. In contrast, erica heather, which researchers found alongside ling heather in the same nature reserve, has large bell-shaped flowers and was better suited for bumblebees.

The author Dr. Nick Balfour said, « The energy efficiency of foraging is particularly important to bees. Research showed the bees walked (and flew) a challenging tightrope walk; half the energy they got from the nectar was put into their collection. » « 

Energy (provided by nectar to bees) is a fundamental need, but the fact that honeybees and bumblebees do not compete directly for nectar is comforting in terms of conservation and coexistence.

Prof. Ratnieks stated: « Bumblebees have a nutritional advantage in some plants and predominate in them, while honey bees have an advantage in others and predominate in them.

 » Bee protection therefore benefits from the variety of flowers, so efforts to protect bees should be a focus. Fortunately, flowering plants are diverse. « 

The research team that Sussex Ph.D. Student Kyle Shackleton, Life Sciences student Natalie A. Arscott, Kimberley Roll-Baldwin, and Anthony Bracuti, and Italian volunteer Gioelle Toselli studied flower species in a variety of on-site locations. This included a nature reserve, the wider landscape, Brighton parks, Prof. Ratnieks’ own garden and a flower bed in front of Sussex House on the university campus.

Dr. Balfour said, « Whether you have a window box, allotment garden or yard, planting a variety of summer blooming flowers, or cutting your grass less often can really help late summer pollinators. »

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Related title :
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Why plant diversity is so important for bee diversity
Research shows why plant diversity is so important for bee diversity

Ref: https://phys.org