Evolutionary Ecology

, Volume 31, Issue 2, pp 173–191 | Cite as

White flowers finish last: pollen-foraging bumble bees show biased learning in a floral color polymorphism

  • Avery L. RussellEmail author
  • China Rae Newman
  • Daniel R. Papaj


Pollinator-driven selection is thought to drive much of the extraordinary diversity of flowering plants. Plants that produce floral traits preferred by particular pollinators are more likely to receive conspecific pollen and to evolve further adaptations to those pollinators that enhance pollination and ultimately generate floral diversity. Two mechanisms in particular, sensory bias and learning, are thought to explain how pollinator preference can contribute to divergence and speciation in flowering plants. While the preferences of pollinators, such as bees, flies, and birds, are frequently implicated in patterns of floral trait evolution, the role of learning in generating reproductive isolation and trait divergence for different floral types within plant populations is not well understood. Floral color polymorphism in particular provides an excellent opportunity to examine how pollinator behavior and learning might maintain the different floral morphs. In this study we asked if bumble bees showed innate preferences for different color morphs of the pollen-only plant Solanum tridynamum, whether bees formed preferences for the morphs with which they had experience collecting pollen from, and the strength of those learned preferences. Using an absolute conditioning protocol, we gave bees experience collecting pollen from a color polymorphic plant species that offered only pollen rewards. Despite initially-naïve bees showing no apparent innate bias toward human-white versus human-purple flower morphs, we did find evidence of a bias in learning. Specifically, bees learned strong preferences for purple corollas, but learned only weak preferences for hypochromic (human-white) corollas. We discuss how our results might explain patterns of floral display evolution, particularly as they relate to color polymorphisms. Additionally, we propose that the ease with which floral visual traits are learned—i.e., biases in learning—can influence the evolution of floral color as a signal to pollinators.


Bumble bee Pollen reward Learning Color polymorphism Biases in learning Preference 



We are grateful to Carla Essenberg, Madhu Viswanathan, Matthew Forister, and Kenneth Train for aid with statistical analyses, to Abreeza Zegeer for greenhouse care, to John Wiens from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum for plants, and to Sarah White for assistance in running experimental trials.


This work was supported by a University of Arizona Honors College Undergraduate Research Grant, as well as funding from the Graduate and Professional Student Council, and the National Science Foundation (IOS-1257762 to A.S. Leonard, S.L. Buchmann, and D.R. Papaj).

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 22 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Entomology and Insect Science Graduate Interdisciplinary ProgramUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA
  2. 2.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA

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