As global pollinator populations decline, the pressure is on for scientists to figure out what makes these buzzing insects tick. While bumblebees do not pollinate much of the food we humans eat, their fuzzy bodies move a lot of pollen for native plant species, which makes them an essential part of many an ecosystem. Tracking the nesting and eating habits of bumblebees has given scientists some surprising new clues about how to encourage pollination in an ever-urbanizing world.
In a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, researchers observed native Californian bumblebees (Bombus vosnesenskii) on farms, nature reserves, and the outskirts of suburbs. The results confirm some basic assumptions about the black and yellow bugs. Take, for example, the fact that the burrowing bees prefer to nest in woodlands rather than pavement. No surprise there.
But bumblebees’ eating habits turned out to be much more flexible than scientists had suspected. The bees prioritize flower diversity over flower density; a hungry bumble bee will fly farther to have more foraging choices. That’s important to know, because it may help land managers decide what to plant where in order to keep these pollinators around. Even small urban gardens, if they contain many different floral species, could provide foraging stepping stones for bumblebees, thus facilitating pollination over a much larger area.
The surprising adaptability of the bumblebee may help it survive in increasingly human-altered landscapes. Let’s hope so—we’ve got a lot riding on its furry little back.
Image: Elliotte Rusty Harold / shutterstock