How bumblebees use motor skills to pollinate flowers

London, April 24 (IANS) Wild bumblebees are born with the ability to remove pollen from nectarless flowers using high-frequency vibrations, a team of researchers has discovered.

Bumblebees have been found to grab the flower and then vibrate their muscles to shake loose the pollen. It’s known as buzz pollination.

“We studied captive bumblebees from their very first exposure to flowers that need to be vibrated to extract pollen and found the creatures instinctively and almost immediately begin vibrating,” said Mario Vallejo-Marin, evolutionary biologist at University of Stirling in Scotland.

The findings showed that initially bees tend to vibrate on the flower petals, but after two or three visits they focus their efforts exclusively on the part of the flower where pollen is produced.

With time and with practice, bees are able to tune down their vibrations, while removing pollen and thus potentially save energy.

“This shows the extensive capacity of these insects to learn complex motor skills to maximise their rewards from each flower they come into contact with,” Vallejo-Marin added in the paper published in the Journal of Insect Behavior.

Also, the buzz that bees produce during flight and during pollen collection is clearly distinct acoustic signals.

“Our research suggests that bumblebees learn to reduce the frequency of the vibration they are using during pollen extraction as they gain more experience manipulating flowers that require vibrations to release pollen,” Vallejo-Marin explained.

Nearly 20,000 species of plants, including major crops, such as tomatoes and potatoes, rely on vibrating bees for pollination services and the ability is limited to only certain types of bees.

The study reveals the complexity of pollination services provided by bees.

“There is a sense of urgency to understand how different species of bees use specialised and complex motor skills to pollinate flowers. Only by studying how bees achieve these specialised behaviours can we can really understand the consequences of declining bee populations for natural and agricultural systems,” the researchers added.

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