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Scientists Discover A Clever Trick Bumblebees Use To Make Flowers Bloom Earlier


Springtime is in full swing. Flowers are out, and pollinators are abuzz. But what about when flowers are not yet in bloom? Well, scientists have found some bumblebees have a clever trick that might be designed to help that process along. They nibble on leaves instead.

CONSUELO DE MORAES: They use the mandibles, and they will cut these little half-moon shape. And it's quite characteristic.


That's Consuelo De Moraes of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. She says when her team first saw the bees punching little half-moons in the leaves, they were mystified.

DE MORAES: We're like, oh, maybe this is some rogue beehive.

KELLY: Turns out it was not rogue at all. Other bumblebees did it, too, especially hungry ones.

SHAPIRO: But the bees didn't seem to be eating the greenery. Instead, in lab experiments, plants with the bees' tiny bite marks burst into bloom as much as a month earlier than undamaged plants, perhaps due to a chemical in the bees' saliva.

HOLLIS WOODARD: Well, my first thought was woah, this is pretty - you know, this is pretty crazy.

KELLY: Hollis Woodard is a bee biologist at UC Riverside. She wasn't involved in the work, but she says the more she thought about it, it reminded her of something.

WOODARD: Bumblebees, including the three species that they observed doing this behavior, do another behavior that at least superficially seems a little similar. It's nectar robbing, where they'll use their mandibles almost like little scissors to cut an incision at the base of a flower.

SHAPIRO: By slicing a shortcut to nectar, the bees cheat their way to a sweet reward. It's easy to imagine how nectar robbing might evolve. The payoff is immediate.

KELLY: But biting leaves and then waiting weeks for flowers to appear?

LARS CHITTKA: As much as I think that bees are indeed very intelligent insects and very impressive in their learning capacities and so on, I don't think this particular phenomenon can be explained by individual bees figuring out, ah, if I bite this plant, then a few weeks later, there's a reward to be had.

KELLY: That's Lars Chittka. He studies bee intelligence at Queen Mary University of London and wrote an editorial accompanying the study. Both appear in the journal Science.

SHAPIRO: Chittka says leaf biting is likely the result of a long-ago mutation plus evolutionary trial and error.

KELLY: Well, whether it's intentional or not remains to be seen, but it provides a deeper glimpse into one of the world's most ancient dances between the pollinator and the plant. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.