Bumblebees' smelly feet help determine where to find lunch

March 7, 2017, University of Bristol
Bumblebees’ smelly feet help determine where to find lunch
Credit: University of Bristol

Scientists from the University of Bristol have discovered that bumblebees have the ability to use 'smelly footprints' to make the distinction between their own scent, the scent of a relative and the scent of a stranger.

And by using this ability, bees can improve their success at finding good sources of food and avoid flowers that have already been visited and mined of nutrients by recognising who has been there previously.

Richard Pearce from the School of Biological Sciences, led the study alongside colleagues Dr Sean Rands and Dr Luca Giuggioli.

He said: "Bumblebees secrete a substance whenever they touch their feet to a surface, much like us leaving fingerprints on whatever we touch.

"Marks of this invisible substance can be detected by themselves and other , and are referred to as scent-marks.

"We performed three separate experiments with bumblebees, where they were repeatedly exposed to rewarding and unrewarding flowers simultaneously that had footprints from different bees attached to them."

Each flower type either carried scent-marks from bumblebees of differing relatedness (either their own marks, sisters from their , or strangers from another nest), or were unmarked.

They discovered that bees were able to distinguish between these four different flower types, showing that not only can bees tell the marks of their own nest mates from strangers, but also that they can discriminate between the smell of their own footprints and those of their nest mate sisters.

Richard Pearce added: "This is the first time it has been shown that bumblebees can tell the difference between their scent and the scent of their family members. This ability could help them to remember which flowers they have visited recently.

"Bumblebees are flexible learners and, as we have discovered, can detect whether or not it is they or a different bumblebee that has visited a flower recently. These impressive abilities allows them to be cleverer in their search for food, which will help them to be more successful."

This work was published today in Scientific Reports.

Explore further: Bumblebees learn the sweet smell of foraging success

More information: Richard F. Pearce et al. Bumblebees can discriminate between scent-marks deposited by conspecifics, Scientific Reports (2017). DOI: 10.1038/srep43872

Related Stories

Male bees have more than a one-track mind

November 12, 2015

Male bumblebees are just as smart as female worker bees despite their dim-witted reputation, according to new research from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL).

Bee flower choices altered by exposure to pesticides

March 14, 2016

Scientists have shown that low levels of pesticides can impact the foraging behaviour of bumblebees on wild flowers, changing their floral preferences and hindering their ability to learn the skills needed to extract nectar ...

Recommended for you

A new DNA editing toolkit for the alga Nannochloropsis

May 22, 2018

Eric Poliner and a team of MSU scientists in the Farre and Benning labs have released a new genetic engineering toolkit for the alga Nannochloropsis. The alga is of interest for the production of biofuels and other oil-based ...

Humans account for little next to plants, worms, bugs

May 21, 2018

When you weigh all life on Earth, billions of humans don't amount to much compared to trees, earthworms or even viruses. But we really know how to throw what little weight we have around, according to a first-of-its-kind ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Mar 07, 2017
Human beings similarly leave long chain free fatty acids emitted from their feet, with methylations only on every other even carbon. Emissions make "home sweet home" a reality, quite similarly. Tail emissions from most mammals (there are 100,000 scent glands on that wagging tail that your canine parasite waves at you when you arrive) mark territories as the animal transits, allowing station keeping on its concentration, and making for a marked "mowing the lawn" pattern to optimize resource utilization. In humans, basically the tail moved up to the head with scalp emissions taking over some processes.

Entomologists, heads clogged with psychobabble lies,
Hunt Science down for bumble bees and butterflies.
Confound their eyes!
They can't see the pheromone receptor proteins in their own emotional tears.
They haven't noticed that 250mg of their own paternal facial skin surface lipid cures 22 diseases, either.
Entomologists drool, exocrinologists rule!

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.