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Concept: Pollinator


Recent declines in honey bee populations and increasing demand for insect-pollinated crops raise concerns about pollinator shortages. Pesticide exposure and pathogens may interact to have strong negative effects on managed honey bee colonies. Such findings are of great concern given the large numbers and high levels of pesticides found in honey bee colonies. Thus it is crucial to determine how field-relevant combinations and loads of pesticides affect bee health. We collected pollen from bee hives in seven major crops to determine 1) what types of pesticides bees are exposed to when rented for pollination of various crops and 2) how field-relevant pesticide blends affect bees' susceptibility to the gut parasite Nosema ceranae. Our samples represent pollen collected by foragers for use by the colony, and do not necessarily indicate foragers' roles as pollinators. In blueberry, cranberry, cucumber, pumpkin and watermelon bees collected pollen almost exclusively from weeds and wildflowers during our sampling. Thus more attention must be paid to how honey bees are exposed to pesticides outside of the field in which they are placed. We detected 35 different pesticides in the sampled pollen, and found high fungicide loads. The insecticides esfenvalerate and phosmet were at a concentration higher than their median lethal dose in at least one pollen sample. While fungicides are typically seen as fairly safe for honey bees, we found an increased probability of Nosema infection in bees that consumed pollen with a higher fungicide load. Our results highlight a need for research on sub-lethal effects of fungicides and other chemicals that bees placed in an agricultural setting are exposed to.

Concepts: Insect, Beekeeping, Pesticide, Pollination, Flower, Pollinator decline, Bumblebee, Pollinator


Wild bees are highly valuable pollinators. Along with managed honey bees, they provide a critical ecosystem service by ensuring stable pollination to agriculture and wild plant communities. Increasing concern about the welfare of both wild and managed pollinators, however, has prompted recent calls for national evaluation and action. Here, for the first time to our knowledge, we assess the status and trends of wild bees and their potential impacts on pollination services across the coterminous United States. We use a spatial habitat model, national land-cover data, and carefully quantified expert knowledge to estimate wild bee abundance and associated uncertainty. Between 2008 and 2013, modeled bee abundance declined across 23% of US land area. This decline was generally associated with conversion of natural habitats to row crops. We identify 139 counties where low bee abundances correspond to large areas of pollinator-dependent crops. These areas of mismatch between supply (wild bee abundance) and demand (cultivated area) for pollination comprise 39% of the pollinator-dependent crop area in the United States. Further, we find that the crops most highly dependent on pollinators tend to experience more severe mismatches between declining supply and increasing demand. These trends, should they continue, may increase costs for US farmers and may even destabilize crop production over time. National assessments such as this can help focus both scientific and political efforts to understand and sustain wild bees. As new information becomes available, repeated assessments can update findings, revise priorities, and track progress toward sustainable management of our nation’s pollinators.

Concepts: Agriculture, Insect, United States, Beekeeping, Pollinator decline, Bee, Bumblebee, Pollinator


Central place foragers, such as pollinating bees, typically develop circuits (traplines) to visit multiple foraging sites in a manner that minimizes overall travel distance. Despite being taxonomically widespread, these routing behaviours remain poorly understood due to the difficulty of tracking the foraging history of animals in the wild. Here we examine how bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) develop and optimise traplines over large spatial scales by setting up an array of five artificial flowers arranged in a regular pentagon (50 m side length) and fitted with motion-sensitive video cameras to determine the sequence of visitation. Stable traplines that linked together all the flowers in an optimal sequence were typically established after a bee made 26 foraging bouts, during which time only about 20 of the 120 possible routes were tried. Radar tracking of selected flights revealed a dramatic decrease by 80% (ca. 1500 m) of the total travel distance between the first and the last foraging bout. When a flower was removed and replaced by a more distant one, bees engaged in localised search flights, a strategy that can facilitate the discovery of a new flower and its integration into a novel optimal trapline. Based on these observations, we developed and tested an iterative improvement heuristic to capture how bees could learn and refine their routes each time a shorter route is found. Our findings suggest that complex dynamic routing problems can be solved by small-brained animals using simple learning heuristics, without the need for a cognitive map.

Concepts: Honey bee, Pollination, Flower, Pollinator decline, Pollination syndrome, Bee, Bumblebee, Pollinator


Agricultural land use results in direct biodiversity decline through loss of natural habitat, but may also cause indirect cross-habitat effects on conservation areas. We conducted three landscape-scale field studies on 67 sites to test the hypothesis that mass flowering of oilseed rape (Brassica napus) results in a transient dilution of bees in crop fields, and in increased competition between crop plants and grassland plants for pollinators. Abundances of bumble-bees, which are the main pollinators of the grassland plant Primula veris, but also pollinate oilseed rape (OSR), decreased with increasing amount of OSR. This landscape-scale dilution affected bumble-bee abundances strongly in OSR fields and marginally in grasslands, where bumble-bee abundances were generally low at the time of Primula flowering. Seed set of Primula veris, which flowers during OSR bloom, was reduced by 20 per cent when the amount of OSR within 1 km radius increased from 0 to 15 per cent. Hence, the current expansion of bee-attractive biofuel crops results in transient dilution of crop pollinators, which means an increased competition for pollinators between crops and wild plants. In conclusion, mass-flowering crops potentially threaten fitness of concurrently flowering wild plants in conservation areas, despite the fact that, in the long run, mass-flowering crops can enhance abundances of generalist pollinators and their pollination service.

Concepts: Agriculture, Pollination, Brassica, Flower, Pollinator decline, Pollination syndrome, Bumblebee, Pollinator


In the past decade, accumulating evidence of pollinator decline has raised concerns regarding the functioning of terrestrial ecosystems and the sustainability of crop production. Although land-use changes have been advanced as the major causes, the affinities of most wild pollinators with the main land-use types remain unknown. Filling this gap in our knowledge is a prerequisite to improving conservation and management programmes.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Pollination, Pollinator decline, Pollination syndrome, Bee, Pollinator, Land use


Wild and managed bees are well documented as effective pollinators of global crops of economic importance. However, the contributions by pollinators other than bees have been little explored despite their potential to contribute to crop production and stability in the face of environmental change. Non-bee pollinators include flies, beetles, moths, butterflies, wasps, ants, birds, and bats, among others. Here we focus on non-bee insects and synthesize 39 field studies from five continents that directly measured the crop pollination services provided by non-bees, honey bees, and other bees to compare the relative contributions of these taxa. Non-bees performed 25-50% of the total number of flower visits. Although non-bees were less effective pollinators than bees per flower visit, they made more visits; thus these two factors compensated for each other, resulting in pollination services rendered by non-bees that were similar to those provided by bees. In the subset of studies that measured fruit set, fruit set increased with non-bee insect visits independently of bee visitation rates, indicating that non-bee insects provide a unique benefit that is not provided by bees. We also show that non-bee insects are not as reliant as bees on the presence of remnant natural or seminatural habitat in the surrounding landscape. These results strongly suggest that non-bee insect pollinators play a significant role in global crop production and respond differently than bees to landscape structure, probably making their crop pollination services more robust to changes in land use. Non-bee insects provide a valuable service and provide potential insurance against bee population declines.

Concepts: Insect, Honey bee, Pollination, Flower, Bee, Bumblebee, Pollinator, Pollinators


Insect pollinators such as bumblebees play a vital role in many ecosystems, so it is important to understand their foraging movements on a landscape scale. We used harmonic radar to record the natural foraging behaviour of Bombus terrestris audax workers over their entire foraging career. Every flight ever made outside the nest by four foragers was recorded. Our data reveal where the bees flew and how their behaviour changed with experience, at an unprecedented level of detail. We identified how each bee’s flights fit into two categories-which we named exploration and exploitation flights-examining the differences between the two types of flight and how their occurrence changed over the course of the bees' foraging careers. Exploitation of learned resources takes place during efficient, straight trips, usually to a single foraging location, and is seldom combined with exploration of other areas. Exploration of the landscape typically occurs in the first few flights made by each bee, but our data show that further exploration flights can be made throughout the bee’s foraging career. Bees showed striking levels of variation in how they explored their environment, their fidelity to particular patches, ratio of exploration to exploitation, duration and frequency of their foraging bouts. One bee developed a straight route to a forage patch within four flights and followed this route exclusively for six days before abandoning it entirely for a closer location; this second location had not been visited since her first exploratory flight nine days prior. Another bee made only rare exploitation flights and continued to explore widely throughout its life; two other bees showed more frequent switches between exploration and exploitation. Our data shed light on the way bumblebees balance exploration of the environment with exploitation of resources and reveal extreme levels of variation between individuals.

Concepts: Honey bee, Pollinator decline, Bee, Bumblebee, Pollinator, Apidae, Pollinators, Foraging


Plant volatiles play important roles in attraction of certain pollinators and in host location by herbivorous insects. Virus infection induces changes in plant volatile emission profiles, and this can make plants more attractive to insect herbivores, such as aphids, that act as viral vectors. However, it is unknown if virus-induced alterations in volatile production affect plant-pollinator interactions. We found that volatiles emitted by cucumber mosaic virus (CMV)-infected tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) and Arabidopsis thaliana plants altered the foraging behaviour of bumblebees (Bombus terrestris). Virus-induced quantitative and qualitative changes in blends of volatile organic compounds emitted by tomato plants were identified by gas chromatography-coupled mass spectrometry. Experiments with a CMV mutant unable to express the 2b RNA silencing suppressor protein and with Arabidopsis silencing mutants implicate microRNAs in regulating emission of pollinator-perceivable volatiles. In tomato, CMV infection made plants emit volatiles attractive to bumblebees. Bumblebees pollinate tomato by ‘buzzing’ (sonicating) the flowers, which releases pollen and enhances self-fertilization and seed production as well as pollen export. Without buzz-pollination, CMV infection decreased seed yield, but when flowers of mock-inoculated and CMV-infected plants were buzz-pollinated, the increased seed yield for CMV-infected plants was similar to that for mock-inoculated plants. Increased pollinator preference can potentially increase plant reproductive success in two ways: i) as female parents, by increasing the probability that ovules are fertilized; ii) as male parents, by increasing pollen export. Mathematical modeling suggested that over a wide range of conditions in the wild, these increases to the number of offspring of infected susceptible plants resulting from increased pollinator preference could outweigh underlying strong selection pressures favoring pathogen resistance, allowing genes for disease susceptibility to persist in plant populations. We speculate that enhanced pollinator service for infected individuals in wild plant populations might provide mutual benefits to the virus and its susceptible hosts.

Concepts: Plant, Annual plant, Fruit, Tomato, Pollination, Flowering plant, Bumblebee, Pollinator


The causes of declines in bees and other pollinators remains an on-going debate. While recent attention has focussed upon pesticides, other environmental pollutants have largely been ignored. Aluminium is the most significant environmental contaminant of recent times and we speculated that it could be a factor in pollinator decline. Herein we have measured the content of aluminium in bumblebee pupae taken from naturally foraging colonies in the UK. Individual pupae were acid-digested in a microwave oven and their aluminium content determined using transversely heated graphite furnace atomic absorption spectrometry. Pupae were heavily contaminated with aluminium giving values between 13.4 and 193.4 μg/g dry wt. and a mean (SD) value of 51.0 (33.0) μg/g dry wt. for the 72 pupae tested. Mean aluminium content was shown to be a significant negative predictor of average pupal weight in colonies. While no other statistically significant relationships were found relating aluminium to bee or colony health, the actual content of aluminium in pupae are extremely high and demonstrate significant exposure to aluminium. Bees rely heavily on cognitive function and aluminium is a known neurotoxin with links, for example, to Alzheimer’s disease in humans. The significant contamination of bumblebee pupae by aluminium raises the intriguing spectre of cognitive dysfunction playing a role in their population decline.

Concepts: Statistics, Pollination, Pollinator decline, Pollination syndrome, Bee, Bumblebee, Pollinator, Soil contamination


Declines in insect pollinators across Europe have raised concerns about the supply of pollination services to agriculture. Simultaneously, EU agricultural and biofuel policies have encouraged substantial growth in the cultivated area of insect pollinated crops across the continent. Using data from 41 European countries, this study demonstrates that the recommended number of honeybees required to provide crop pollination across Europe has risen 4.9 times as fast as honeybee stocks between 2005 and 2010. Consequently, honeybee stocks were insufficient to supply >90% of demands in 22 countries studied. These findings raise concerns about the capacity of many countries to cope with major losses of wild pollinators and highlight numerous critical gaps in current understanding of pollination service supplies and demands, pointing to a pressing need for further research into this issue.

Concepts: Agriculture, Insect, Europe, Pollination, Pollen, Pollination management, Bumblebee, Pollinator