Sonication: Pollination by vibration of bees

19.11.2016. 23:19

The familiar buzz of a bumble bee is one of those summer sounds that is easy to take for granted. But for the bees, buzzing has a purpose.

Bees Buzz for Their Supper

Researchers from the University of Arizona experimented to find out whether a bee’s technique to cull pollen from flowers was learned, or instinctual. Watch the VIDEO by ROBIN LINDSAY and JAMES GORMAN!

They may buzz during courtship, or out of alarm if they are caught or trapped. Another reason is to collect pollen. Some flowering plants hide their pollen in structures called anthers, and to get it, bumble bees (and other bees) bite the anthers and then hang on and buzz until the vibration causes the anther to spill out a shower of pollen. The process is called sonication, or buzz pollination, and although it is well known to occur, it hasn’t been studied much in terms of whether it is learned or innate.

Nectar feeding has been studied much more, according to Avery L. Russell, a doctoral student in entomology at the University of Arizona. Mr. Russell, Daniel R. Papaj and two other colleagues ran some experiments with flowers that require sonication to release their pollen.

That wasn’t the case with sonication. That seems to come naturally to these bumble bees, Mr. Russell said. The bees in the experiment were raised in the laboratory. “They’d never seen a flower before,” Mr. Russell said.

But they knew what to do on the first try.

  • Grab on to anther with mandibles.
  • Buzz until doused with pollen.
  • Groom pollen off front legs and other parts of body and stick onto pollen baskets on rear legs.

What this means, Mr. Russell said, is that the bees ought to be able to quickly adapt to new plants in their range if vegetation changes because of climate change. It also means that if bees move into new areas, whether they’re accidentally introduced or because of warming trends, they ought to be able to adapt.

That is a mixed blessing, Mr. Russell pointed out. If their environment changes and new plants colonize the areas they inhabit, the bees should be able to adapt quickly. On the other hand, quick adaptability could make these bumble bees successful as invaders of new areas.

For bees already in those areas, competing for pollen-filled anthers may be the last thing they need.