We learn by observing others. Not only is that true for humans, it’s also true for other creatures, including certain species of bees. And in the case of short-tongued bumblebees, what they learned is something we call burglary – “breaking and entering”.
For millions of years, flowering plants and insects such a bumblebees have participated in a “backscratching” pact: flowers nourish the bees with edible nectar and pollen while bees pollinate the flowers by transfering pollen from one flower to another.
Over the last 100 million years or so, some flowering plants have evolved long tubular-shaped flowers. These flowers attract insects with long tongues but they are unreachable by short-tongued insects. The “shorties” get around this by “breaking and entering”, cutting an entry hole at the base of the flower, so that they can reach the sweet nectar inside without providing any pollination services in return. Click here to see an example of how it’s done.
Is this larcenous skulduggery innate or learned behavior? Recent studies suggest that it is learned behavior. Dr. David Goulson and his team studied 13 alpine meadows in Switzerland during the summers of 2009 and 2011. Specifically, they studied bumblebee foraging behavior (Bombus lucorum and Bombus wurflenii) around the Yellow Rattle flower.
They found that the entry “holes in flowers in a single meadow are often all made on the same side”. This meant that the larcenous bumblebees had a preference, they were either left or right handed. They also found that each summer started as a “blank slate”; the handedness in 2009 did not influence the handedness in 2011.
Dr Goulson explains this by suggesting “that each year a few bumblebees which have learnt the trick of nectar robbery in the previous season come out of hibernation and start robbing flowers again. By chance, they make more holes on one side of the flowers than the other, and as the habit is picked up by other, newly hatched bees, a preference for left or right spreads by a process of positive feedback.”
Not only did bees learn by observing other bees within their species, but they also learned by observing other bees from a related species. “…If one species was behaving in (say) a left-handed manner in a particular meadow, the other was likely to do the same. This suggests that one species can learn from another—a trick previously thought to be confined to vertebrates.”
Is there a lesson to be learned from this? Perhaps crime does pay? Or perhaps the survival of these short-tongued bees benefits the entire ecosystem, including the Yellow Rattle flower, in a way we have yet to discover.
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Source: Santa Clarita News