Bees use colour-coding to collect pollen and nectar

October 6, 2015, The Royal Society
Credit: Lilla Frerichs/public domain

A study published this week in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters finds that bees are able to learn which flowers to collect nectar and pollen from based on the colour of the blooms.

Bees gather nectar as a carbohydrate source and harvest for protein- both essential parts of a bee's diet. A lab study lead by Felicity Muth at University of Nevada shows that bees can learn to associate pollen and nectar each with a different colour flower to help them forage for the different nutrients at the same time.

Researchers trained groups of bees in the lab to associate yellow flowers and blue flowers with either a cherry pollen reward or with sugar water- a stand in for flower nectar.

After the bees had learnt which colour flowers contained which food the team tested the bees on a group of 16 artificial flowers including the original yellow and blue as well as orange and purple blooms that the bees hadn't encountered before. The team filmed the behaviour of bees to see which flowers they tried to collect pollen from and where they attempted to gather nectar-harvesting techniques which require different bee body movements.

In the test 20 bees collected both pollen and nectar. The results showed that the bees were more likely to search for pollen and nectar on the coloured flowers they had learnt to associate with the treats and less likely to check out the flowers which they had previously been trained to associate with the other reward.

The bees could also generalise what they had learnt. Bees who knew yellow flowers meant nectar also tried to get from orange flowers but not from green; and bees who knew pollen came from blue flowers tried to harvest it from the green as well.

Scientists have long studied learning and memory in bees, but so far have only focused on testing their learning and memory when only one reward is involved. This study shows that can learn to associate colours with multiple rewards simultaneously. It's a skill which would be useful for general foragers like bumblebees that have a diverse diet often foraged from different places.

Explore further: Bees able to spot which flowers offer best rewards before landing

More information: "Colour learning when foraging for nectar and pollen: bees learn two colours at once." Biology Letters DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2015.0628

Related Stories

Parasitized bees are self-medicating in the wild, study finds

September 1, 2015

Bumblebees infected with a common intestinal parasite are drawn to flowers whose nectar and pollen have a medicinal effect, a Dartmouth-led study shows. The findings suggest that plant chemistry could help combat the decline ...

Bumblebees use logic to find the best flowers

April 4, 2013

Scientists at Queen Mary, University of London and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), have discovered why bees copy each other when looking for nectar – and the answer is remarkably simple.

Making a beeline for the nectar

June 20, 2013

Bumblebees searching for nectar go for signposts on flowers rather than the bull's eye. A new study, by Levente Orbán and Catherine Plowright from the University of Ottawa in Canada, shows that the markings at the center ...

Recommended for you

Meteorite source in asteroid belt not a single debris field

February 17, 2019

A new study published online in Meteoritics and Planetary Science finds that our most common meteorites, those known as L chondrites, come from at least two different debris fields in the asteroid belt. The belt contains ...

Diagnosing 'art acne' in Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings

February 17, 2019

Even Georgia O'Keeffe noticed the pin-sized blisters bubbling on the surface of her paintings. For decades, conservationists and scholars assumed these tiny protrusions were grains of sand, kicked up from the New Mexico desert ...

Archaeologists discover Incan tomb in Peru

February 16, 2019

Peruvian archaeologists discovered an Incan tomb in the north of the country where an elite member of the pre-Columbian empire was buried, one of the investigators announced Friday.

Where is the universe hiding its missing mass?

February 15, 2019

Astronomers have spent decades looking for something that sounds like it would be hard to miss: about a third of the "normal" matter in the Universe. New results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory may have helped them ...

What rising seas mean for local economies

February 15, 2019

Impacts from climate change are not always easy to see. But for many local businesses in coastal communities across the United States, the evidence is right outside their doors—or in their parking lots.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.