arom’in around the flowers: how bees cope with a smelly environment

beeguest blog by David Lawson

Sensory overload happens to us all. Whether you’re in the centre of town or waiting for a train at a station, sometimes you’re bombarded by a cacophony of noises, images and even smells. Your mind can only do so much to sort out what’s relevant to you or what’s worth ignoring. People talking, music booming, buses passing, announcements blaring out into the air. You hear a phone ring and assume it’s someone else’s, but then you notice the vibrating of the phone in your pocket and know it’s yours. By matching up the ringing of the phone with the vibration, you’re certain that this information is relevant to you.

The environment of a foraging bee can be equally noisy, but not just with sound. These complex floral marketplaces are filled with the smells and colours of various flowers, some of which are more rewarding than others, but just like us and our phones, bees have a similar techniques to find the relevant flowers. In our recent publication in Royal Society Open Science, we have looked into the ways in which bumblebees find flowers while looking for nectar. Using artificial flowers, we recorded how quickly the bees can learn the difference between scented flowers when exposed to environments filled with different scents. We discovered that bees could differentiate between the flowers much faster when the flowers had visual aspects along with their scents.

These findings suggest that the visual aspects of flowers could be used as a backup for the scent of flowers when scent is compromised, ensuring that bees can find the most rewarding flowers in uncertain environments. This helps us understand how bees, and the pollination services they provide, might be affected in a rapidly changing world.

Further reading

Lawson DA, Whitney HM & Rands SA (2017). Colour as a backup for scent in the presence of olfactory noise: testing the efficacy backup hypothesis using bumblebees (Bombus terrestris). Royal Society Open Science 4: 170996 | full text (freely readable open access) | pdf