Flight of the bumblebee: Research tracks every move of these mysterious creatures

With the health of bees on the decline, researchers race to help support these critical pollinators.

An amazing bit of research reported by scientists from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) now reveals the secret life of the bees as they traverse the pastures from hive to food sources. The tracking started when the insects are born, before they acquired familiarity with their environs, so it maps the exploratory efforts of the bees. Continued tracking throughout the lifetime of the bees also suggests how much bees can remember about these explorations.

Dr Joseph Woodgate, lead author, says,

“This study provided an unprecedented look at where the bees flew, how their behavior changed as they gained experience and how they balanced the need to explore their surroundings – looking for good patches of flowers – with the desire to collect as much food as possible from the places they had already discovered.”

Four bees were fitted with tiny tracking devices and followed for 244 flights over 112 miles (180 km). The scientists classified each flight into two categories: exploration and exploitation. They found that bees seem to learn early where food sources are available. They then will fly out directly to known sources to collect sustenance, only occasionally combining these exploitation flights with further exploration.

They also remember these early flights. One bee foraged for food at the best source for 6 days. Upon leaving this area, it headed straight out to another area remembered from the initial explorations, without further exploratory flight patterns.

These studies could help in understanding how the spread of deadly parasites, such as the Varroa mite, can be hemmed. That said, the behavior of the four bees studied varied a lot, so additional work can improve the statistical significance of these sorts of observations for the community of bees.

Read more on the Life-Long Radar Tracking of Bumblebees in PLOS One. [http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0160333]