Diet breadth, coexistence and rarity in bumblebees
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Factors that determine the relative abundance of bumblebee species remain poorly understood, rendering management of rare and declining species difficult. Studies of bumblebee communities in the Americas suggest that there are strong competitive interactions between species with similar length tongues, and that this competition determines the relative abundance of species. In contrast, in Europe it is common to observe several short-tongued species coexisting with little or no evidence for competition shaping community structure. In this study we examine patterns of abundance and distribution in one of the most diverse bumblebee communities in Europe, found in the mountains of southern Poland. We quantify forage use when collecting nectar and pollen for 23 bumblebee species, and examine patterns of co-occurrence and niche overlap to determine whether there is evidence for inter-specific competition. We also test whether rarity can be explained by diet breadth. Up to 16 species were found coexisting within single sites, with species richness peaking in mountain pasture at ~1,000 m altitude. Results concur with previous studies indicating that the majority of pollen collected by bumblebees is from Fabaceae, but that some bee species (e.g. B. ruderatus) are much more heavily dependent on Fabaceae than others (e.g. B. lucorum). Those species that forage primarily on Fabaceae tended to have long tongues. In common with studies in the UK, diet breadth was correlated with abundance: rarer species tended to visit fewer flower species, after correcting for differences in sample size. No evidence was found for similarity in tongue length or dietary overlap influencing the likelihood of co-occurrence of species. However, the most abundant species (which co-occurred at most sites) occupied distinct dietary niche space. While species with tongues of similar length tended, overall, to have higher dietary niche overlap, among the group of abundant short-tongued species that commonly co-occurred there was marked dietary differentiation which may explain their coexistence.