After a bumblebee lands on a flower blossom and forages the nectar and pollen the flower has to offer, those who are observant and study bees have often noticed that the bee backs off, in flight, and stares at the flower a little longer while hovering in front of it, before flying away.
Is it a fond farewell? Is the bee thanking the flower in some unspoken way or acknowledging it for its fine nectar?
Bumble bees are solitary, so they are not assessing the flower and accumulating data to bring back for their hive mates like a honeybee would likely do.
The reason they do this is to commit the image of the flower and its location to memory. Bees assess and take this mental snapshot of the flower in order to remember how they got there and how it looks so they can return for more fine nectar.
This Scishow 3:11-minute video featuring Hank Green takes a closer look at this unique phenomenon.
In a 2021 study in Current Biology, researchers shared their findings after they studied bumblebee learning flights by offering the bees fake flowers with fake nectar.
The study revealed that even though the bees did not necessarily seem to realize that the flowers and nectar were completely fake, they got something from the experience and realized that some flowers delivered better experiences and more rewarding output than others.
The 'nectar' in different 'flowers' was 20% and 50% sugar. Clearly the fifty percent sugar flowers impressed the bumblebees more than the twenty percent sugar flowers.
The researchers did not expect the bigger bees to work harder to remember the sweeter flowers than the smaller bees. This was noticeable because the larger bees spent more time facing the flowers and studying them before flying away to ‘learn’ them than the smaller bees did. In fact, the smaller bees didn’t seem all that interested and interacted with all flowers more or less equally.
This presented a mystery for the researchers, since a good source of nectar should interest any bee, regardless of size.
It didn’t take researchers long to solve the puzzle.
The reason is: carrying capacity. Bigger bumble bees can carry a lot more nectar than smaller bees. Smaller bees don’t need to forage all that often. Instead, they stay busy on tasks back at their nests. When they forage, they are limited in how far away from their nest they can travel and in how much nectar they can carry back, so they are not as concerned and settle for what they find close to home.
In contrast, big bumble bees have better vision so they can visit flowers in the morning when sunlight is low and there is more nectar for the taking. Being bigger, they can also handle the cold better than smaller bumblers.
An interesting observation from this study is that bees from the same nests have different behaviors based on size.
Who knows how many more hidden or previously unnoticed behaviors bumblebees indulge in that we haven’t noticed yet? Without doubt, they are one of the most fascinating creatures around.
The best part of solving bumblebee behavior codes is that we understand these adorable bees even better and therefore we can care better for them and help them to not just survive but thrive.
Check out the post we wrote about bumblebees just the other day right here.
So next time you are lounging in your garden and some bumblebees buzz in, see if you can observe them hovering like drones before a flower after they have foraged, and you’ll know why!
The intelligence of nature in its infinite wisdom, and the extraordinary bumblebee in particular, are totally inspiring.