A recent study conducted by scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service reveals that honey bees exhibit greater fidelity to their flower patches compared to bumble bees when collecting pollen and nectar. The study, published in Ecosphere, found that 76% of honey bees revisited the same plot of alfalfa flowers, while only 47% of eastern bumble bees did the same.
Interestingly, the size of the flower patches affected the behavior of bumble bees but not honey bees. Bumble bees showed greater fidelity to larger patches, whereas the likelihood of honey bees returning to a patch was not influenced by patch size. The study utilized large patches, measuring approximately 15 by 15 yards with 225 plants, and small patches, measuring about 10 by 10 yards with 100 alfalfa plants.
The ability to remain faithful to specific foraging locations requires reliable spatial memories, enabling insects or animals to navigate complex landscapes and repeatedly return to the same site. Both honey bees and bumble bees have demonstrated this ability, indicating that other species-specific factors contribute to the observed differences in patch fidelity.
One potential explanation for these differences lies in the foraging behavior of bumble bees, which are more explorative and willing to invest individually in foraging. They often visit multiple types of flowers during a foraging bout. In contrast, honey bees rely on their highly developed communication system, particularly the waggle dance, to share information about valuable food sources with other foragers. Bumble bees do not exhibit this behavior.
The higher patch fidelity of honey bees may reflect their aversion to risk, including the wastage of energy and resources or encountering predators. Understanding the characteristics that drive patch fidelity in honey bees and bumble bees is crucial for supporting their health and ensuring effective pollination, benefiting beekeepers, producers, and conservation biologists. Pollination patterns can also impact gene flow, affecting how gene pools of separate populations of the same species mix.
Bumble bees’ lower patch fidelity can lead to increased gene flow among the patches they visit, facilitating the movement of genes over longer distances. This higher gene flow in plant populations can homogenize their genetic diversity in the natural environment.
The findings of this study provide valuable insights into the behavior and characteristics of honey bees and bumble bees, ultimately contributing to the conservation of pollinators and the essential role they play in crop pollination.