Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why Are Bumblebees So Fuzzy?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why Are Bumblebees So Fuzzy?

Article excerpt

Bees play a crucial role in pollination, integral to the functioning both of natural ecosystems and to the sustainability of our crops. As such, the relationships between these insects and the flowers they pollinate are of vital interest. How how do bees and blooms communicate with one another?

One of the many methods used to facilitate bumblebees' recognition of particular flowers turns out to employ electric fields, something usually believed to be confined to the aquatic world, according to researchers from Bristol University in England.

Their research, published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), drilled into the mechanisms involved and discovered that the unique electrical signatures emitted by a given flower are detected by the fuzzy hairs that blanket bumblebees' bodies - and considering that similarly light, bristly hair covers so many creatures, the ability may be widespread in the insect world.

"When I first started studying this I had a very naive question," lead author Gregory Sutton, a Royal Society university research fellow at Bristol University, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. "Why do flowers look so different to one another?"

Surely all flowers would converge towards the one shape, scent, color - and any other characteristic you care to mention - most attractive to the pollinators? Except that this reasoning neglected an important factor: Flowers don't aim just to attract a given pollinator. They want that pollinator to stick around, to lock them into a monogamous relationship.

So, with the dazzling diversity of flowers on display in the plant kingdom, it takes a bee some time to figure out how best to extract the nectar it seeks from a given type. Once it conquers one, a bee would be reluctant to expend all that energy investigating others.

Take mint, for example.

"Have you ever had mint honey?" asks Dr. Sutton. "Well, you don't just mix mint into honey; turns out it's icky. …

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