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Naturwissenschaften. 2007 Jun;94(6):459-64. Epub 2006 Dec 6.

Pollen foraging: learning a complex motor skill by bumblebees (Bombus terrestris).

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School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, Queen Mary University of London, 327 Mile End Road, London, E1 4NS, UK.


To investigate how bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) learn the complex motor skills involved in pollen foraging, we observed naïve workers foraging on arrays of nectarless poppy flowers (Papaver rhoeas) in a greenhouse. Foraging skills were quantified by measuring the pollen load collected during each foraging bout and relating this to the number of flowers visited and bout duration on two consecutive days. The pollen standing crop (PSC) in each flower decreased drastically from 0530 to 0900 hours. Therefore, we related foraging performance to the changing levels of pollen available (per flower) and found that collection rate increased over the course of four consecutive foraging bouts (comprising between 277 and 354 individual flower visits), suggesting that learning to forage for pollen represents a substantial time investment for individual foragers. The pollen collection rate and size of pollen loads collected at the start of day 2 were markedly lower than at the end of day 1, suggesting that components of pollen foraging behaviour could be subject to imperfect overnight retention. Our results suggest that learning the necessary motor skills to collect pollen effectively from morphologically simple flowers takes three times as many visits as learning how to handle the most morphologically complex flowers to extract nectar, potentially explaining why bees are more specialised in their choice of pollen flowers.

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