Nectar source profitability influences individual foraging preferences for pollen and pollen-foraging activity of honeybee colonies

  • Andrés ArenasEmail author
  • Matías G. Kohlmaier
Original Article


Most foraging honeybees specialize in either pollen or nectar collection, although some do alternate between both resources. Little is known about this behavioral plasticity and the factors that control it. We studied how the profitability of nectar sources influences the transition of bees between nectar and pollen collection at the individual response level, by measuring the number of switches when the productivity of a sugar source (either sugar concentration or solution flow rate) was experimentally decreased or increased. At the social level, we studied whether the quality of the nectar that circulates inside a hive alters the rate of incoming pollen foragers. We then calculated the ratio between pollen and non-pollen foragers, before and after the hives were fed either a 3 or a 50% w/w sugar solution. In the first experiment, we showed that bees that persisted in visiting the feeder when offered low-quality solutions were more likely to switch to pollen than those foraging only on highly concentrated solutions. Looking at the collective responses, the ratio of pollen over non-pollen foragers increased after the input of a low-quality sugar solution and decreased after the input of a high-quality sugar solution. We conclude that the profitability of nectar sources interacts with the sugar responsiveness of bees, thus driving foraging preferences for pollen and modifying the pollen foraging activity of the colony. The results also show that bees integrate gustatory information from both rewarding resources based on local cues available either at the foraging site or inside the hive.

Significance statement

Switching between resource types could be adaptive for honeybees that specialize in either nectar or pollen foraging. This would allow them to react to changes in the foraging environment. Although we observed that switching behavior is constrained by the responsiveness of bees to sugar, the switch from nectar to pollen (and vice versa) is an active decision of the bees in response to the decreasing or increasing profitability of pollen versus nectar sources. Given the ability of some bees to switch between foraging tasks based solely on gustatory cues available at the foraging site, we investigated whether source-related information conveyed inside the hive also affects colony foraging activity towards nectar and pollen resources. We observed that behavioral plasticity of individuals can be integrated into a social response by colonies reallocating their foraging forces according to the food-related information available inside the hive.


Foraging preferences Pollen collection Food source profitability Sugar responsiveness Task specialization 



We thank W. Farina for the fruitful comments and discussions at the early stage of this project and to MJ. Corriale for help with statistical analyses.

Funding information

This study was partly supported by Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET) and by grants from Agencia Nacional de Promoción Científica y Tecnológica (ANPCYT), University of Buenos Aires and CONICET to A. Arenas.

Supplementary material

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Figure 1S

Switching behaviour from pollen to sugar feeders of increasing sugar concentration. Percentage of labeled honeybees that changed their foraging preferences to sugar solutions throughout 4 tests of increasing concentrations. Bars show medians ± SE of 9 independent groups of bees. Different letters indicate statistically significant differences (p < 0.05; Tukey’s test). (PNG 165 kb)

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High resolution image (EPS 68 kb)
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Figure 2S

Ratio of incoming pollen over incoming non-pollen foragers according to the gustatory input offered into the hive. Ratio of incoming foragers with and without pollen loads were counted before (T0) and after (T1) the offering of 3% and 50% w/w sugar solutions or at the same time (T0 and T1) even when no solution was offered. Box plots show medians, quartiles and 5th and 95th percentiles from 19 hives. Asterisks indicate statistical differences among ratios (**p < 0.01; ***p < 0.001; simple effects). (PNG 87 kb)

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Figure 3S

Sugar responsiveness of in-hive bees according to the quality of the sugar solution offered inside the hive. Mean proboscis extension response (PER) scores of bees captured from two groups of hives before (T0) and 60 min after (T1) they were fed either 3% or 50% w/w sugar solution. Box plots show medians, quartiles and 5th and 95th percentiles and outliers from 10 hives. Different letters indicate statistically significant differences among PER scores (p < 0.05; simple effects). (PNG 75 kb)

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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Laboratorio de Insectos Sociales, Departamento de Biodiversidad y Biología Experimental, Facultad de Ciencias Exactas y NaturalesUniversidad de Buenos AiresBuenos AiresArgentina
  2. 2.Instituto de Fisiología, Biología Molecular y Neurociencias, (IFIBYNE), CONICETUniversidad de Buenos AiresBuenos AiresArgentina

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