Bees have distinct personalities to find nectar, study reveals

Tiny aerials allowed scientists to track the bees using radio signals. Picture: PA
Tiny aerials allowed scientists to track the bees using radio signals. Picture: PA
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A “flight of the bumblebee” study has revealed that the insects have distinct personalities.

Some bees play it safe by returning to the same flowers again and again while others are more keen to search for new sources of nectar, scientists found.

The researchers tracked four bumblebees from the moment they first saw the light of day to death, recording a total of 244 flights covering a distance of more than 180 km (112 miles).

Each bee had a tiny aerial attached to is body that allowed the scientists to follow its movements using radio signals.

Individual bees differed greatly in the way they foraged for food, the study showed.

The results could assist the management of crops to maximise the free pollination service provided by wild bees.

Dr James Makinson, from THE School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL), said: “One bee was something of a lifelong vagabond, never settling down on a single patch of flowers.

“In contrast another of our bees was exceptionally diligent, quickly switching after only three flights from exploration of the surrounding environment to focusing exclusively on a single location for six consecutive days.

“After six days this bee switched her attention to a closer forage source. She was able to do this without re-exploring her environment, suggesting she had remembered the location from her initial explorations.

“Our other two bees interspersed foraging for a single location with exploratory flights throughout their entire life.”

The team, whose findings appear in the journal Public Library Of Science ONE, identified two categories of “exploration” and “exploitation” flight.

During exploitation flights, the bees made fuel-efficient journeys to memorised food sources – usually a single foraging location. This type of flight was only rarely combined with exploration trips into unfamiliar territory.

Exploration usually took place during the first few flights made by each bee, before good nectar sources were identified.

Study co-ordinator Professor Lars Chittka, also from QMUL, said: “For the first time, we have been able to record the complete ‘life story’ of a bee. From the first time she saw the light of day, entirely naive to the world around her, to being a seasoned veteran forager in an environment full of sweet nectar rewards and dangerous threats, to her likely death at the hands of predators, or getting lost because she has ventured too far from her native nest.”