Video transcript: Modelling bee pollination: enter the ‘flight arena’

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March 2011

Nicholas Charton, University of Bristol
I'm Nicholas Charlton at the University of Bristol and I'm studying bumblebees. What I've got here is some bumblebees. We've got a live colony in a box, with a Queen and workers, and they come through a tube into this box here and this we call a flight arena, so they fly out of the colony and come into here to actually feed. At the moment they are feeding from artificial flowers, which are just made of coloured plastic discs with a small well in the middle with sugar solution. So they come in, they feed, and they go back to the colony.

So in the flight arena with the bumblebees we can get them to feed from different things and we get them to feed on a sugar solution and we can put them into these artificial flowers. I know it doesn't look much like a flower but the coloured discs represent the petals of the flower and in the centre is a small well where we can put the sugar solution, which they learn to feed from quite quickly. There are also other ways to represent artificial flowers, different flower shapes, even paper flowers, and we can use these to ask questions about how bees choose which flowers to visit, what are the triggers that motivate them to visit perhaps maybe asking questions about the colour of the petals, or even the textures on the petals themselves. And different shapes, sizes and also different materials.

So one of the things that I have been trying to do is to setup experiments in the lab with bees and artificial flowers to look at what drives their decisions on which flowers to visit. So in a natural environment you have different flower species, different species will have different amounts of nectar in them, and its the nectar that the bees want. The more nectar they get, the more energy they get, and the greater the success of the colony. And greater success means more bees.

Interestingly, these bees can show behaviour where they bite into flowers that they wouldn't normally be able to reach the nectar from because their tongues are too short and the flowers are too deep. So I'm going to try and setup an experiment where I put in paper tubes that represent deep flowers and see if I can get the bees to chew holes in them to get the nectar out. And then I can ask questions about how many flowers do I need in a flight arena like this for them to switch between normal feeding to this nectar robbing behaviour where they chew holes in the flowers.

I studied bees because they are so important as effective pollinators of wild flowers and important crops as well. Bumblebees are in decline and if we don't halt the decline of bumblebees, eventually, we could have a catastrophe where we can't produce the crops that we want, or the cost of them becomes so high that people can't afford to buy them. We also may lose important plant wild flowers, which rely on pollination by bees.