, Volume 94, Issue 6, pp 459–464 | Cite as

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

  • Nigel E. RaineEmail author
  • Lars Chittka
Short Communication


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.


Bumble bee Floral morphology Flower handling skills Learning behaviour Pollen collection rate 



We would like to thank Juliette Schikora for help with the experiments and Tom Ings and three anonymous referees for their comments on the manuscript. This work was supported by a NERC grant (NER/A/S/2003/00469). All experiments comply with the current laws of the country in which they were performed.


  1. Buchmann SL (1983) Buzz-pollination in angiosperms. In: Jones CE, Little RJ (eds) Handbook of experimental pollination biology. Scientific and Academic Editions, New York, pp 73–113Google Scholar
  2. Charnov EL (1976) Optimal foraging: the marginal value theorum. Theor Popul Biol 9:129–136PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Chittka L (1998) Sensorimotor learning in bumblebees: long-term retention and reversal training. J Exp Biol 201:515–524Google Scholar
  4. Chittka L, Thomson JD (1997) Sensori-motor learning and its relevance for task specialization in bumble bees. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 41:385–398CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Chittka L, Gumbert A, Kunze J (1997) Foraging dynamics of bumble bees: correlates of movements within and between plant species. Behav Ecol 8:239–249CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Chittka L, Thomson JD, Waser NM (1999) Flower constancy, insect psychology, and plant evolution. Naturwissenschaften 86:361–377CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Chittka L, Ings TC, Raine NE (2004) Chance and adaptation in the evolution of island bumblebee behaviour. Popul Ecol 46:243–251CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Harder LD (1990) Behavioral responses by bumble bees to variation in pollen availability. Oecologia 85:41–47CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Heinrich B (1976) The foraging specializations of individual bumblebees. Ecol Monogr 46:105–128CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Heinrich B (1979) Bumblebee economics. Harvard University Press, Cambridge MassachusettsGoogle Scholar
  11. Heß D (1990) Die Blüte. Ulmer, StuttgartGoogle Scholar
  12. Ings TC, Schikora J, Chittka L (2005) Bumblebees, humble pollinators or assiduous invaders? A population comparison of foraging performance in Bombus terrestris. Oecologia 144:508–516PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Ings TC, Ward NL, Chittka L (2006) Can commercially imported bumblebees out-compete their native conspecifics? J Appl Ecol 43:940–948CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Keasar T, Motro U, Shur Y, Shmida A (1996) Overnight memory retention of foraging skills by bumblebees is imperfect. Anim Behav 52:95–104CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Kugler H (1970) Blütenökologie, 2nd edn. Gustav Fischer-Verlag, StuttgartGoogle Scholar
  16. Laverty TM (1994) Bumble bee learning and flower morphology. Anim Behav 47:531–545CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Laverty TM, Plowright RC (1988) Flower handling by bumblebees: a comparison of specialists and generalists. Anim Behav 36:733–740CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Menzel R (1985) Learning in honey bees in an ecological and behavioral context. In: Hölldobler B, Lindauer M (eds) Experimental behavioral ecology. Gustav Fischer Verlag, Stuttgart, pp 55–74Google Scholar
  19. Michener CD, Winston ML, Jander R (1978) Pollen manipulation and selected activities and structures in the family Apidae. Univ Kans Sci Bull 51:575–601Google Scholar
  20. Pacini E, Franchi GG (1999) Pollen grain sporoderm and types of dispersal units. Acta Soc Bot Pol 68:229–305Google Scholar
  21. Pohl F (1937) Die Pollenerzeugung der Windblüter. Beihefte Bot Centralblatt A 56:365–470Google Scholar
  22. Raine NE, Chittka L (2005) Comparison of flower constancy and foraging performance in three bumblebee species (Hymenoptera: Apidae: Bombus). Entomol Gen 28:81–89Google Scholar
  23. Raine NE, Chittka L (2007) Flower constancy and memory dynamics in bumblebees (Hymenoptera: Apidae: Bombus). Entomol Gen 29 (in press)Google Scholar
  24. Raine NE, Ings TC, Dornhaus A, Saleh N, Chittka L (2006a) Adaptation, genetic drift, pleiotropy, and history in the evolution of bee foraging behavior. Adv Stud Behav 36:305–354Google Scholar
  25. Raine NE, Ings TC, Ramos-Rodríguez O, Chittka L (2006b) Intercolony variation in learning performance of a wild British bumblebee population (Hymenoptera: Apidae: Bombus terrestris audax). Entomol Gen 28:241–256Google Scholar
  26. Ribbands CR (1949) The foraging method of individual honey-bees. J Anim Ecol 18:47–66CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Rogers S (1969) Studies on British poppies 1. Some observations on the reproductive biology of British species of Papaver. Watsonia 7:55–63Google Scholar
  28. Seeley TD (1995) The wisdom of the hive: the social physiology of honey bee colonies. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MassachusettsGoogle Scholar
  29. Stone GN, Raine NE, Prescott M, Willmer PG (2003) The pollination ecology of Acacias (Fabaceae, Mimosoideae). Aust Syst Bot 16:103–118CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Strickler K (1979) Specialization and foraging efficiency of solitary bees. Ecology 60:998–1009CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Thorp RW (1979) Structural, behavioral and physiological adaptations of bees for collecting pollen. Ann Mo Bot Gard 66:788–812CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Thorp RW (2000) The collection of pollen by bees. Plant Syst Evol 222:211–223CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Waser NM (1986) Flower constancy: definition, cause, and measurement. Am Nat 127:593–603CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Westrich P (1989) Die Wildbienen Baden-Württembergs. Ulmer Verlag, StuttgartGoogle Scholar
  35. Willmer PG, Stone GN (2004) Behavioral, ecological, and physiological determinants of the activity patterns of bees. Adv Stud Behav 34:347–466Google Scholar
  36. Wolfe LM, Barrett SCH (1989) Patterns of pollen removal and deposition in trystylous Pontederia cordata L. (Pontederiaceae). Biol J Linn Soc 36:317–329Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Biological and Chemical SciencesQueen Mary University of LondonLondonUK
  2. 2.Zoologie II, BiozentrumWürzburgGermany

Personalised recommendations