Bumblebees. Got to love them. They’re little fuzzy critters that live on pollen and generally don’t sting. You pretty much have to really make them mad.
They’re actually kind of cute. But it turns out that their relationship with plants is more complex than we thought.
Bumblebees as Pollinators
Bumblebees are a pollinator species like honeybees. You’ll see both species in English hedgerows, flying from plant to plant and generally staying out of each other’s way.
They are considered important pollinators in Europe and much of the United States and are occasionally shipped.
They generally start pollinating earlier than other bees because they are more cold tolerant, despite the fact that colonies don’t overwinter (only young queens survive, in hibernation).
Like most pollinator insects, bumblebees eat pollen. So scientists were quite surprised to see them also eating leaves…
…so, what gives?
They Aren’t Eating the Leaves
Bumblebees are actually just nipping the leaves, and it’s actually in quite a specific pattern. They poke holes in the leaves.
And they do it when they’re hungry.
And the plant responds…
The theory is that plants flower when under increased stress, and the nippy bumblebees are presenting stress, thus forcing the plants to flower early.
Except that it might be even more complicated than that. Attempts to duplicate the bee bites to trigger flowering have shown that it’s less effective.
So, what if this is a form of communication between bee and plant? Not bees hurting plants to get what they want, but something more sophisticated.
It Benefits the Plants Too
Flowering uses a lot of energy. Flowers that aren’t pollinated go to waste.
So, while leaf biting to trigger flowers might seem to be primarily in the interest of the hungry bees, it’s also sending a message to the plant.
That message says “Hey, we’re here” to the plant and the plant goes “Oh, pollinators! If I flower now…”
There might even be a chemical part to it too, with the plant registering the bee’s saliva.
So, hungry bee gets food and plant gets pollinated and everyone is happy.
We can’t prove it, but the idea that bees and plants talk to each other is quite intriguing.
Also, they’re cute.