When plant pollen scarce, bumblebees biting leaves causes flowers to bloom early

James Marshall
May 23, 2020

They are known to carefully assess the plants, determines the flowers with most nectar and pollen, and leave a scent to let them know which ones are ready to bloom.

Bee damaged plants flowered about two weeks earlier than undamaged plants in one species, the mustard plant, and almost a month earlier in another, the tomato plant.

It's the first time researchers have looked at this behaviour, and they're still not sure what exactly the bees do to make the plants bloom earlier than they normally would. However, this study has paved a new way for botanists.

They found that bumblebees can trick plants into producing flowers early by nibbling tiny holes in their leaves. Insects and flowering plants have evolved together, sharing a long history that strikes a delicate balance between efflorescence and pollinator development. Foteini Pashalidou and colleagues discovered an adaptive strategy used by food-deprived bumblebees to manipulate the timing of a plant's flowering.

One possibility is that as bees bite the plant, they inject chemicals that speed up flowering.

A bumblebee pierces a leaf with its tongue
A bumblebee pierces a leaf with its tongue

The authors were not able to reproduce the effects by mimicking the damage on their own, which suggests an as yet unknown feature distinct to the bees' approach.

'That treatment caused slightly earlier flowering in both species, but not almost as dramatic as the effect of bee damage'. Although the mechanisms by which deliberate bee damage accelerate flowering remain unclear, the results reveal bumblebees as powerful agents in influencing the local availability of floral resources.

"If so, scientists might realize a horticulturist's dream by deciphering the molecular pathways through which flowering can be accelerated by a full month."

Buzzing bumblebees are one of the many signs that spring has arrived. However, global warming and other anthropogenic environmental changes have the potential to disrupt the timing of these and other ecologically important interactions among species.

A report from a year ago revealed climate change is shifting spring forward in the United Kingdom and disrupting life cycles of ecosystems.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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