To predict where a bumblebee will carry its pollen next, you have to literally think like one.
"Once they've learned a foraging style that's been successful, they are more likely to stick with it rather than invest time in learning something new," says Rebecca Flanagan, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM).
Flanigan and her professor, Jeffrey Karron, are studying the behaviors of bees as they gather pollen which plant species the bees forage on, which flowers they probe and in what order, and how many blooms they visit before moving on to another plant. In doing so, the bees make plant reproduction possible by dispersing pollen.
But why go to such lengths to map the flight of the bumblebee? It may seem random and inconsequential. But it is neither, says Karron, an associate professor of Biological Sciences.
The bees are pivotal players in determining which plant populations survive through successful reproduction. If scientists could better understand nature's decision-making process, then they could use the information to increase crop yields and to boost conservation of native plant communities.
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Because there are many bee behaviors, the task isn't simple, but with tedious scrutiny it is documentable.
"Bumblebees definitely have distinct foraging patterns, both among species and even individuals of a single species," Karron says. In fact, some of the many different behaviors lead to far more fruitful propagation than others.
To understanding foraging patterns, the team must manipulate every variable they can feasibly control in a natural setting.
But the experimental garden they keep at the UWM Field Station in the Cedarburg Bog is far from the sterile laboratory, and the complexity of their experiments becomes immediately evident: There are more options here than clothes in a teenage girl's closet.