Social bees travel greater distances for food than their solitary counterparts, study finds

According to researchers at the University of Bristol, social bees such as honeybees and bumblebees have larger foraging areas.

The findings, published today in Current biology, show that social bees venture further afield for pollen and nectar. This has implications for predicting pollination services and for creating effective conservation strategies for bees and plants.

Social bees travel greater distances due to several characteristics including body size, colony size, communication, and constancy of flowers.

Larger bees like the bumblebee have a longer foraging range. They have bigger wings and can fly faster, so it is easier for them to cover more ground.

Bees in large colonies will experience more competition from their sisters if they stay close to the nest, so they must travel farther to avoid traffic jams.

Many social bees have evolved different types of communication methods. This allows foragers who have found a very rewarding flower species to tell their sisters about their discovery. As a result, more bees will have a preference for the same type of flower.

Also, social bees tend to visit one type of flower on a foraging trip. Flower constancy means that bees ignore viable alternative options because they only focus on a subset of all available flowers, forcing them to travel farther to find their favorite flower.

As bees, and in particular social bees, are among the most important pollinators, while also being threatened, the findings have implications for their protection and the conservation of the threatened plants they pollinate.

Lead author Dr Christoph Grueter, from Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences, explained: “Our findings suggest that solitary bees may be most affected by habitat loss and fragmentation caused by the humans, as they will have more difficulty finding suitable food sources at greater distances.

“Social bees could be particularly important for the protection of endangered plant species that only exist in isolated patches. Since many species of social bees can be kept in hives, we could use our understanding of their foraging areas in a targeted manner to facilitate pollination of plants in remote areas.”

Dr Grueter and Lucy Hayes conducted the study during lockdown using coding to build a simulation model in combination with published literature to find existing data on bee foraging grounds of 90 bee species . They also developed an agent-based model to test how social, dietary and environmental factors affect foraging ranges. He now plans to study and confirm the findings in the natural environment of bees and determine which bees are most and least affected by habitat loss and fragmentation.

He added: “Since there will be a big international push for reforestation and rewilding, this will help us understand how reforestation and rewilding projects might affect and be affected by different groups of pollinators.

“Their social lifestyle means that bee colonies collect food over a much larger area than solitary bees. This helps us plan effective conservation strategies to help both bees and plants that they pollinate.”

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Material provided by University of Bristol. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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