The Use of Numerical Information by Bees in Foraging Tasks

Noam Bar-Shai, Tamar Keasar and Avi Shmida

The ability of invertebrates to perform complex cognitive tasks is widely debated. Bees utilize the number of landmarks en-route to their destination as cues for navigation, but their use of numerical information in other contexts has not been studied. Numerical regularity in the spatial distribution of food occurs naturally in some flowers, which contain a fixed number of nectaries. Bees that collect nectar from such flowers are expected to increase their foraging efficiency by avoiding return visits to empty nectaries. This can be achieved if bees base their flowerdeparture decisions on the number of nectaries they had already visited, or on other sources of information that co-vary with this number.We tested, through field observations and laboratory experiments, whether bees adapt their departure behavior to the number of available food resources. Videorecorded observations of bumblebees that visited Alcea setosa flowers with five nectaries revealed that the conditional probability of flower departure after five probings was 93%. Visit duration, the spatial attributes of the flowers and scent marks could be excluded as flower-leaving cues, while the volume of nectar collected may have guided part of the departure decisions. In the laboratory the bees foraged on two patches, each with three computer-controlled feeders, but could receive only up to two sucrose-solution rewards in each patch visit. The foragers gradually increased their tendency to leave the patches after the second reward, while the frequency of patch departure after the first reward remained constant. Patch-visit duration, nectar volume, scent marks and recurring visit sequences in a patch were ruled out as possible sources of patch-leaving information.We conclude that bumblebees distinguish among otherwise identical stimuli by their serial position in a sequence, and use this capability to increase foraging efficiency. Our findings support an adaptive role for a complicated cognitive skill in a seemingly small and simple invertebrate.

June, 2010
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