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Space use by bees– radar tracking of spatial movement patterns of key pollinators

Final Report Summary - SPACERADARPOLLINATOR (Space use by bees– radar tracking of spatial movement patterns of key pollinators)

One third of the food we consume (fruits and vegetables) hinges upon plant pollination by insect visitors. Many natural plants are likewise dependent on the services of pollinators. These services are currently under threat because agricultural intensification, habitat loss, pesticide use and disease all impinge on how bees can efficiently move pollen between flowers. Yet, before the start of this project, we did not yet have a basic understanding of how bees navigate successfully over territories of multiple square miles. Using harmonic radar technology, for the first time in any animal, we have been able to track the precise spatial whereabouts of individual bumblebees for the entire lifetimes. This study, revealing how bees first explore their environment to collect general spatial information as well as information about suitable foraging locations, and then switch from exploration to exploitation of suitable flower patches and sometimes back to exploration if previously exploited patches become unsuitable. The study also revealed highly individually different strategies of the foragers tested. Another study revealed the spatial structure and mathematical properties of bumblebees’ flight in three dimensions, when they search for flowers at variable heights. A surprising discovery in the exploration of spatial orientation was that when bees have to make intermediate spatial choices to an ambiguous destination between two training locations, their behaviour bears all the hallmarks of emotion like states comparable to those found in mammals (published in the leading international journal Science). We also explored how, when pairs or groups of multiple bumblebees are tested, they compete with each other for information and resources, but also learn from each other. The project’s biggest successes were achieved in this context – how bees can copy behavior strategies in spatial cognitive tasks from each other. For example, we discovered that bees caged in a transparent container could learn, by observing knowledgeable conspecifics, the spatial location at which they needed to position themselves in order to obtain a hidden reward by pulling a string. This study and several of the ones listed above generated global media coverage. For example, just one video posted on The Guardian’s Facebook page about the last study was viewed more than 10 Million times within 2 weeks of publication. We subsequently took this exploration of spatial cognition to the next level, by testing whether bees could learn to move detached objects to precise spatial locations in their environment. Not only were bees able to master this challenging spatial cognition task, but they also managed to learn it from each other by observation (also published in the top journal Science). These studies into the mind of the bee have generated a wholly new level in the appreciation of their conservation: the fact that bees think and feel beings implies, for us humans, the moral responsibility to conserve them both in the wild as well as to treat managed pollinators and laboratory animals humanely.