Bumblebees, humble pollinators or assiduous invaders? A population comparison of foraging performance in Bombus terrestris
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- Ings, T.C., Schikora, J. & Chittka, L. Oecologia (2005) 144: 508. doi:10.1007/s00442-005-0081-9
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Worldwide trade in non-native bumblebees remains largely unrestricted despite well-documented cases where introductions of non-native bees have gone dramatically wrong. Within Europe, indiscriminate importation of non-native populations of bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) for the pollination of glasshouse crops continues on a massive scale. However, no risk assessment has been conducted for these introductions, perhaps because B. terrestris is considered a native species, so shipping populations from one region to another has been implicitly assumed to present no risk. This view is clearly unjustified because Bombus terrestris populations differ significantly in their genetic makeup as demonstrated by strong differences in coat colour and behavioural traits. Therefore, for the first time we compare an important competitive trait, namely foraging performance, between commercially available B. terrestris populations in contrasting environments. We test whether commercially reared populations differ in their nectar foraging performance and whether this is influenced by both their source environment and the one they are introduced into. We do this by means of a reciprocal transplant experiment. Strong, consistent inter-population differences in performance occurred irrespective of test location: Canary Island bees (B. t. canariensis) were superior to Sardinian bees (B. t. sassaricus), which were generally superior to mainland European bees (B. t. terrestris). These inter-population differences in performance were largely explained by inter-population variation in forager size, with larger bees being superior foragers. However, even when body size was accounted for, “native” bees were not superior to transplanted non-native bees in all but one case. We conclude that non-native populations, especially those with large foragers, can be highly competitive foragers. This could lead to their establishment and displacement of native bees. Therefore, we recommend that unregulated movements of non-native B. terrestris populations within Europe should not be carried out without a full risk assessment.