Flower patterns improve foraging efficiency in bumblebees by guiding approach flight and landing

Robin Richter, Alexander Dietz, James Foster, Johannes Spaethe, Anna Stöckl

This is a plain language summary of a Functional Ecology research article which can be found here.

We have all experienced the fascinating range of colourful patterns that flowers display on our windowsills and in our gardens. However, while merely pleasing to us, they can be of great importance to animals that visit flowers for their daily food supply. Flower patterns are thought to lead insect pollinators to a plant’s nectary, expressed in the term ‘nectar guides’. While it has been demonstrated that flower patterns help many insect species reach the nourishing nectar faster, the mechanisms by which this improved efficiency is obtained remain poorly understood. We therefore analysed the flower interactions of the buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris), which included the approach and departure flight paths, their landing positions, and their walking tracks on artificial flowers with different pattern types.

Bombus terrestris forager (credit: Anna Stöckl)

Our study revealed that flower patterns reduced the overall flower handling time from approach to departure by up to 30%, but did not reduce the time it took the bees to discover the nectary once landed. Instead, the patterns improved the bees’ foraging efficiency by guiding their approach flight, landing, and the decision to depart from the flower after feeding. These effects were observed in experienced bumblebee foragers, which make up the majority of active pollinators. Thus, the nectary-independent impact of flower patterns must be considered fundamental to plant-pollinator interactions under natural conditions.


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