‘Smelly Feet’ Help Bumblebees Find Lunch

(CN) – Bumblebees have the ability to use other bees’ “smelly footprints” to avoid flowers that have already been mined of nutrients.

The unique odor produced by bumblebees also helps them distinguish between the scent of a relative and the scent of a stranger, according to a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports.

“Bumblebees secrete a substance whenever they touch their feet to a surface, much like us leaving fingerprints on whatever we touch,” lead author Richard Pearce said. “Marks of this invisible substance can be detected by themselves and other bumblebees, and are referred to as scent-marks.”

Pearce’s team performed three separate experiments with bumblebees, exposing them to nutrient-rich flowers and flowers that had already been mined. Each flower type carried scent-marks from bumblebees of differing relatedness – their own scents, those of sisters from their nest, and the scents of strangers from another nest.

The results of the experiments show that the bumblebees were able to discriminate between the smell of their own footprints and those of their nestmate sisters.

“This is the first time it has been shown that bumblebees can tell the difference between their scent and the scent of their family members,” Pearce said. “This ability could help them to remember which flowers they have visited recently.”

He added, “Bumblebees are flexible learners and, as we have discovered, can detect whether or not it is they or a different bumblebee that has visited a flower recently. These impressive abilities allow them to be cleverer in their search for food, which will help them to be more successful.”