Animal IQ

Bumblebees Mark Each Flower With A Smelly Footprint

If you think your feet smell, try being a bumblebee. For them, smelly footprints help to discriminate among new flowers and those already scavenged by themselves or their fellow furry fliers. The invisible markers each bumblebee secretes helps lead them to more rewarding food sources.

Related: Bees Yell "Whoop" When They're Surprised

Why we're covering this:

  • It shows that despite popular belief, bumblebees are surprisingly clever.
  • The sense of smell is super powerful—even for bees!

Whoever Smelt It...

This news comes from a study published in March 2017 by University of Bristol researchers in the U.K. Lead author Richard Pearce and his colleagues found that bumblebees can recognize their own scent mark on a flower, as well as distinguish between a relative or a stranger's scent mark. Pearce elaborates to New Scientist: "Bumblebees secrete a substance whenever they touch their feet to a surface, much like us leaving fingerprints on whatever we touch."

Related: Japanese Honey Bees Roast Hornets In Their "Oven"

Over three separate experiments, the bumblebees were exposed to "rewarding" and "unrewarding" flowers with footprints that were from them, their sisters, or bumblebees from another nest. For the first time ever recorded, the bumblebees were able to distinguish between the four flower types. So, how is this useful? If a bumblebee can smell that a stranger has already depleted a flower of its nutrients, then it can quickly move on to better food sources. "These impressive abilities allow them to be cleverer in their search for food, which will help them to be more successful," Pearce explains to New Scientist.

Related: Swarm Of Bees After You? Jumping Into Water Won't Get Rid Of Them

(A) Artificial flower design, showing the well for storing sucrose or water, the translucent cover attached using transparent tape, and the semi-circle of filter paper at the entrance; (B) the two arrangements of four flowers, with rewarding (filled circles) and unrewarding (unfilled circles) flowers positioned randomly for each bout. N is the direction of the nest.

Been There, Smelled That

It's also useful for bumblebees to detect when they've already visited a flower. Instead of solely relying on spatial memory for identifying blooms they've already foraged, they have their handy dandy smelly scent marks. The bumblebees could even potentially remember rewarding flowers they visited so long ago that they were ready to be tapped again, just by detecting differences in the smell's composition over time. Pretty impressive for some smelly feet, don't you think?

Is there something you're curious about? Send us a note or email us at editors (at) curiosity.com. And follow Curiosity on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Watch And Learn: Our Favorie Content About Bees

Japanese Honey Bees Roast Hornets In Their "Oven"

Share the knowledge!

Key Facts In This Video

  1. See Japanese honey bees swarm around the hive caring for their young: 00:09

  2. Japanese giant hornets mark the hives of honey bees with pheromones so other hornets can find the prey later. 01:09

  3. Japanese honey bees swarm onto their Japanese giant hornet predators and vibrate, creating an oven that cooks the hornet alive. 01:39

Written by Curiosity Staff March 21, 2017