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Radar tracking reveals the ‘life stories’ of bumble bees

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Scientists used radar to track bumble bees throughout their lives.

Scientists have tracked the flight paths of bumble bees throughout their entire lives to find out how they explore their environment and search for food.

Scientists have tracked the flight paths of a group of bumble bees throughout their entire lives in what is thought to be the first lifetime tracking study of any animal in such detail. The new study used a radar to show how individual bees explore their environment and search for food. The findings showed that individual bumble bees differ greatly in the way they fly around the landscape when foraging for nectar and pollen. The work was performed by scientists from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) and Rothamsted Research, which receives strategic funding from BBSRC. The scientists published their findings today in the journal PLOS ONE.

To follow the bees, the scientists used the harmonic radar at Rothamsted Research. The device uses a tiny transponder attached to the bee to detect a radar signal. At just 16 millimetres, the light-weight transponders are not thought to affect bees’ flight behaviour. In total, 244 flights made by four bees were recorded, encompassing more than 15,000 minutes and covering a total distance of more than 180km.

The researchers identified two categories of flight – exploration and exploitation flights. Exploration of the landscape typically occurs in the first few flights made by each bee and this is when bees discover most of the places they will return to for feeding during their lives, although further exploration flights are sometimes made. Meanwhile, exploitation of memorised food sources takes place during efficient trips, usually to a single foraging location. This is rarely combined with the exploration of unfamiliar areas.

Dr Joseph Woodgate, of QMUL and Rothamsted Research, said: “This study provided an unprecedented look at where the bees flew, how their behaviour changed as they gained experience and how they balanced the need to explore their surroundings - looking for good patches of flowers - with the desire to collect as much food as possible from the places they had already discovered.”

Dr James Makinson, who is joint-first-author with Dr Woodgate, added: “One bee was something of a lifelong vagabond, never settling down on a single patch of flowers. In contrast another of our bees was exceptionally diligent, quickly switching after only three flights from exploration of the surrounding environment to focusing exclusively on a single forage location for six consecutive days.

"After six days this bee switched her attention to a closer forage source. She was able to do this without re-exploring her environment, suggesting she had remembered the location from her initial explorations. Our other two bees interspersed foraging for a single location with exploratory flights throughout their entire life.”

Professor Lars Chittka, coordinator of the study at QMUL, said: "For the first time, we have been able to record the complete 'life story' of a bee. From the first time she saw the light of day, entirely naïve to the world around her, to being a seasoned veteran forager in an environment full of sweet nectar rewards and dangerous threats, to her likely death at the hands of predators, or getting lost because she has ventured too far from her native nest.”

Bees provide an invaluable service to both natural and agricultural ecosystems by pollinating flowers. Understanding how they use the space available to them, and how and when they find food, will provide valuable insights into how to manage landscapes to benefit plants, insects and crops. The study could also help to explain the way the genes of bee-pollinated plants spread throughout the landscape and shed light on the way parasites and diseases are spread between patches of plants.

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About Queen Mary University of London

Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) is one of the UK’s leading universities, and one of the largest institutions in the University of London, with 20,260 students from more than 150 countries. A member of the Russell Group, we work across the humanities and social sciences, medicine and dentistry, and science and engineering, with inspirational teaching directly informed by our research - in the most recent national assessment of the quality of research, we were placed ninth in the UK (REF 2014). We also offer something no other university can: a stunning self-contained residential campus in London’s East End. As well as our home at Mile End, we have campuses at Whitechapel, Charterhouse Square and West Smithfield dedicated to the study of medicine, and a base for legal studies at Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

We have a rich history in London with roots in Europe’s first public hospital, St Barts; England’s first medical school, The London; one of the first colleges to provide higher education to women, Westfield College; and the Victorian philanthropic project, the People’s Palace at Mile End. Today, as well as retaining these close connections to our local community, we are known for our international activities, and have research and teaching partnerships with leading universities around the world. This includes two very successful and long-standing joint partnerships with the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, and Nanchang University.        

QMUL has an annual turnover of £350m, a research income worth £100m, and generates employment and output worth £700m to the UK economy each year.

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BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, BBSRC invested £473M in world-class bioscience, people and research infrastructure in 2015-16. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

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