Desert bees hedge their bets, wait for the wet

ITHACA, N.Y. -- The northern tip of the Chihuahuan Desert juts from northern Mexico into the southern parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. It is where black-tailed jackrabbits scurry, roadrunners sprint and diamondbacks slither. For the continent's largest desert, punctuated by mountains, the monsoon rains end sometime in late summer. Then the flowers bloom, and the desert bees come out. And like the desert's floral seeds waiting for their season in the sun, scientists have learned that the desert bees have adopted a patient reproductive strategy. Desert bee larvae patiently lie in wait in the desert soil for a chance to emerge, usually after a year or more. Scientists call this process "diapause," a bet-hedging strategy that results in the survival of the best-rested.

But according to new research by Cornell University entomologist Bryan N. Danforth, not all the viable larvae emerge in any one year of diapause, and their "coming out" is triggered by rain. Writing in the October issue of The Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Danforth notes that by spreading reproduction over several years, desert bees can keep catastrophic losses of their kin to a minimum in very bad drought years.

"This is evidence of a bet-hedging life history," says Danforth, an assistant professor at Cornell. "The bees are giving up reproduction in year one to reproduce in year two, and this is the first study that shows that rainfall triggers emergence in bees. That the bees have rainfall-induced emergence is remarkable and helps further explain why bees are so diverse in arid regions."

According to Danforth, "This past year was a good year for the bees. As humans we do a lot of bet-hedging, too. We use a bet-hedging strategy when we buy mutual funds for investments. As humans, we learn to spread out our risks all the time. Well, so have plants, and now we learn so have the desert bees."

Bet-hedging also can have ecological effects, in that the she

Contact: Blaine P. Friedlander Jr.
Cornell University News Service

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