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Bumblebee Flight: Heavy Pollen Loads Play Their Part, Study Finds


The load carried by a bumblebee impacts its flight, a new study has found.

Researchers from Harvard University and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology conducted experiments in their lab concerning the flight and behavior of bees. Scientists Andrew Mountcastle, Sridhar Ravi and Stacey Combes published their study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Previous research has studied how the cargo bees carry affect their survival and reproduction, but there has been no research conducted on how the loads they carry affect their flight, reports Phys.Org. Bees can carry their full weight in nectar – inside a little pouch in the abdomen – and nearly half of their weight in pollen in their legs.

“Bumblebees are basically aerial tankers,” said Mountcastle.

What might be surprising to many people is just how much load they’re able to carry. Bumblebees are basically aerial tankers.

Mountcastle and his colleagues ordered a hive of bumblebees online, and Fed Ex delivered it to their lab, reports NPR. “It comes packaged in a nice box,” Mountcastle said.

It comes packaged in a nice box. And it always excites the FedEx guy when he drops off a buzzing hive at your door.

The research team affixed the bumblebees with differing amounts of simulated pollen and nectar, and then placed the bees one at a time into a wind tunnel where the wind and flower targets varied.

“We use artificial weights, in the form of really, really small steel ball bearings,” said Mountcastle.  The scientists glued the steel ball bearings on the bees’ legs to simulate a pollen load, or on their abdomens to simulate a nectar load.

The bees were filmed with high-speed cameras, and the scientists found that bees carrying pollen were more stable, which helped in windy conditions but impeded maneuverability when flying in calm conditions.

Bumblebees loaded down with pollen on their legs could manage a stable flight in windy or rainy conditions, but couldn’t fly as fast or turn as well mid-flight. Bees loaded down with nectar in their abdomen pouch were not as stable in inclement conditions, but could fly more quickly and maneuver turns – which help them escape predators.

According to Discovery News, honeybees have assigned foragers for nectar and pollen, but bumblebees are “generalists” and will carry either, depending on the needs of the hive.

The findings suggest that bumblebees might choose to carry pollen, and avoid nectar, on windy or rainy days, which is something the researchers are looking into.

Recent studies have found that the bumblebee population is being threatened by climate change, which could be catastrophic for the environment.

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