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Bumble-bees trick plants in response to climate change

Stella Harwood May 28, 2020
Bumble-bees trick plants in response to climate change

In the ever-growing face of climate change it appears that while we’re one step behind, the bumble-bee is three steps ahead.

Trying to ignite a spark of action towards climate change often feels like trying to wake the dead. Sometimes, however, there’s a flicker of life. A sign nature is in this fight with us. The humble bumble-bee is one such example.

Recent years have brought the UK earlier springs and hotter summers. This has potential to throw nature out of balance. Flowers don’t bloom early enough, which disrupts the ecosystem.

As spring arrives, hibernating queen bees awake and the hive needs a lot of resources to stabilise her colony.

A study on bumble-bee behaviour

A recent study by ETH professors Consuelo De Moraes and Mark Mescher published in Science discovered bumble-bees have found a way to deal with irregular flowering and a lack of pollen.

The study found bumble-bees damage the leaves of plants that have yet to flower by ‘biting’ them. This stimulates the plant to produce new flowers, accelerating the process by between four and six weeks

Image by Janneke Alkema from Pixabay


The study was launched after researchers noticed bumble-bees were nibbling at leaves without eating the pieces or carrying them back to the hive.

Tests were carried out on two bee groups. One microcolony was given lots of nectar, the other none. When both colonies were exposed to flowerless plants, in this case black mustard, researchers found the bees deprived of pollen nibbled the plants more.

Researchers were unable to reproduce the process, showing bumble-bees are one step ahead of us.

Stress-induced flowering

Stress-induced flowering is what prompts a plant to open earlier than normal. It’s a response intended to ensure the flower can reproduce before it is eaten.

Kiyotoshi Takeno, in her study of Botany, noted: “Stress-induced flowering can be considered the ultimate adaptability to stress because flowering results in the reproduction that ensures survival as a species.”

While plants can react to multiple stress factors including light, temperature and poor nutrition, bees have wasted no time waiting.

Plants and pollinators

Plants and pollinators rely on each other for survival and the importance of synchronisation shouldn’t be underplayed. Bumble-bees need pollen for nutrients, it’s their most important source of protein. An average hive can collect 100lb of pollen in one season.

Plant and pollinator are mutualist partners as part of the ‘balance of nature’.

Why this is important

About 75% of plants require pollination, including most of the crops we eat.

The planet needs bees to sustain a healthy environment and economy. Bees give us so much, from the food we eat to the cotton we wear. They play a major part in our lives.

Almost all crops are visited by bees – they are responsible for $30 billion a year to the global economy. If bees struggle, we struggle.

Luckily, as Mescher and Moraes discovered, bees are one step ahead of the game. While we make their lives harder via pesticides and loss of habitat, bees are finding ways to ensure flower growth.

Recognising bees’ importance is the first step in supporting them.

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