As pollinators, bees are cornerstones for terrestrial ecosystem stability and key components in agricultural productivity. All animals, including bees, are associated with a diverse community of microbes, commonly referred to as the microbiome. The bee microbiome is likely to be a crucial factor affecting host health. However, with the exception of a few pathogens, the impacts of most members of the bee microbiome on host health are poorly understood. Further, the evolutionary and ecological forces that shape and change the microbiome are unclear. Here, we discuss recent progress in our understanding of the bee microbiome, and we present challenges associated with its investigation. We conclude that global coordination of research efforts is needed to fully understand the complex and highly dynamic nature of the interplay between the bee microbiome, its host, and the environment. High-throughput sequencing technologies are ideal for exploring complex biological systems, including host-microbe interactions. To maximize their value and to improve assessment of the factors affecting bee health, sequence data should be archived, curated, and analyzed in ways that promote the synthesis of different studies. To this end, the BeeBiome consortium aims to develop an online database which would provide reference sequences, archive metadata, and host analytical resources. The goal would be to support applied and fundamental research on bees and their associated microbes and to provide a collaborative framework for sharing primary data from different research programs, thus furthering our understanding of the bee microbiome and its impact on pollinator health.
Plant volatiles play important roles in attraction of certain pollinators and in host location by herbivorous insects. Virus infection induces changes in plant volatile emission profiles, and this can make plants more attractive to insect herbivores, such as aphids, that act as viral vectors. However, it is unknown if virus-induced alterations in volatile production affect plant-pollinator interactions. We found that volatiles emitted by cucumber mosaic virus (CMV)-infected tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) and Arabidopsis thaliana plants altered the foraging behaviour of bumblebees (Bombus terrestris). Virus-induced quantitative and qualitative changes in blends of volatile organic compounds emitted by tomato plants were identified by gas chromatography-coupled mass spectrometry. Experiments with a CMV mutant unable to express the 2b RNA silencing suppressor protein and with Arabidopsis silencing mutants implicate microRNAs in regulating emission of pollinator-perceivable volatiles. In tomato, CMV infection made plants emit volatiles attractive to bumblebees. Bumblebees pollinate tomato by ‘buzzing’ (sonicating) the flowers, which releases pollen and enhances self-fertilization and seed production as well as pollen export. Without buzz-pollination, CMV infection decreased seed yield, but when flowers of mock-inoculated and CMV-infected plants were buzz-pollinated, the increased seed yield for CMV-infected plants was similar to that for mock-inoculated plants. Increased pollinator preference can potentially increase plant reproductive success in two ways: i) as female parents, by increasing the probability that ovules are fertilized; ii) as male parents, by increasing pollen export. Mathematical modeling suggested that over a wide range of conditions in the wild, these increases to the number of offspring of infected susceptible plants resulting from increased pollinator preference could outweigh underlying strong selection pressures favoring pathogen resistance, allowing genes for disease susceptibility to persist in plant populations. We speculate that enhanced pollinator service for infected individuals in wild plant populations might provide mutual benefits to the virus and its susceptible hosts.
Declines in insect pollinators across Europe have raised concerns about the supply of pollination services to agriculture. Simultaneously, EU agricultural and biofuel policies have encouraged substantial growth in the cultivated area of insect pollinated crops across the continent. Using data from 41 European countries, this study demonstrates that the recommended number of honeybees required to provide crop pollination across Europe has risen 4.9 times as fast as honeybee stocks between 2005 and 2010. Consequently, honeybee stocks were insufficient to supply >90% of demands in 22 countries studied. These findings raise concerns about the capacity of many countries to cope with major losses of wild pollinators and highlight numerous critical gaps in current understanding of pollination service supplies and demands, pointing to a pressing need for further research into this issue.
The impact of neonicotinoid insecticides on insect pollinators is highly controversial. Sublethal concentrations alter the behaviour of social bees and reduce survival of entire colonies. However, critics argue that the reported negative effects only arise from neonicotinoid concentrations that are greater than those found in the nectar and pollen of pesticide-treated plants. Furthermore, it has been suggested that bees could choose to forage on other available flowers and hence avoid or dilute exposure. Here, using a two-choice feeding assay, we show that the honeybee, Apis mellifera, and the buff-tailed bumblebee, Bombus terrestris, do not avoid nectar-relevant concentrations of three of the most commonly used neonicotinoids, imidacloprid (IMD), thiamethoxam (TMX), and clothianidin (CLO), in food. Moreover, bees of both species prefer to eat more of sucrose solutions laced with IMD or TMX than sucrose alone. Stimulation with IMD, TMX and CLO neither elicited spiking responses from gustatory neurons in the bees' mouthparts, nor inhibited the responses of sucrose-sensitive neurons. Our data indicate that bees cannot taste neonicotinoids and are not repelled by them. Instead, bees preferred solutions containing IMD or TMX, even though the consumption of these pesticides caused them to eat less food overall. This work shows that bees cannot control their exposure to neonicotinoids in food and implies that treating flowering crops with IMD and TMX presents a sizeable hazard to foraging bees.
Growing evidence for global pollinator decline is causing concern for biodiversity conservation and ecosystem services maintenance. Neonicotinoid pesticides have been identified or suspected as a key factor responsible for this decline. We assessed the global exposure of pollinators to neonicotinoids by analyzing 198 honey samples from across the world. We found at least one of five tested compounds (acetamiprid, clothianidin, imidacloprid, thiacloprid, and thiamethoxam) in 75% of all samples, 45% of samples contained two or more of these compounds, and 10% contained four or five. Our results confirm the exposure of bees to neonicotinoids in their food throughout the world. The coexistence of neonicotinoids and other pesticides may increase harm to pollinators. However, the concentrations detected are below the maximum residue level authorized for human consumption (average ± standard error for positive samples: 1.8 ± 0.56 nanograms per gram).
Multiple interacting factors drive recent declines in wild and managed bees, threatening their pollination services. Widespread and intensive monitoring could lead to more effective management of wild and managed bees. However, tracking their dynamic populations is costly. We tested the effectiveness of an inexpensive, noninvasive and passive acoustic survey technique for monitoring bumble bee behavior and pollination services. First, we assessed the relationship between the first harmonic of the flight buzz (characteristic frequency) and pollinator functional traits that influence pollination success using flight cage experiments and a literature search. We analyzed passive acoustic survey data from three locations on Pennsylvania Mountain, Colorado to estimate bumble bee activity. We developed an algorithm based on Computational Auditory Scene Analysis that identified and quantified the number of buzzes recorded in each location. We then compared visual and acoustic estimates of bumble bee activity. Using pollinator exclusion experiments, we tested the power of buzz density to predict pollination services at the landscape scale for two bumble bee pollinated alpine forbs (Trifolium dasyphyllum and T. parryi). We found that the characteristic frequency was correlated with traits known to affect pollination efficacy, explaining 30-52% of variation in body size and tongue length. Buzz density was highly correlated with visual estimates of bumble bee density (r = 0.97), indicating that acoustic signals are predictive of bumble bee activity. Buzz density predicted seed set in two alpine forbs when bumble bees were permitted access to the flowers, but not when they were excluded from visiting. Our results indicate that acoustic signatures of flight can be deciphered to monitor bee activity and pollination services to bumble bee pollinated plants. We propose that applications of this technique could assist scientists and farmers in rapidly detecting and responding to bee population declines.
Insects use several senses to forage, detecting floral cues such as color, shape, pattern, and volatiles. We report a formerly unappreciated sensory modality in bumblebees (Bombus terrestris), detection of floral electric fields. These fields act as floral cues, which are affected by the visit of naturally charged bees. Like visual cues, floral electric fields exhibit variations in pattern and structure, which can be discriminated by bumblebees. We also show that such electric field information contributes to the complex array of floral cues that together improve a pollinator’s memory of floral rewards. Because floral electric fields can change within seconds, this sensory modality may facilitate rapid and dynamic communication between flowers and their pollinators.
Bees are subject to numerous pressures in the modern world. The abundance and diversity of flowers has declined, bees are chronically exposed to cocktails of agrochemicals, and they are simultaneously exposed to novel parasites accidentally spread by humans. Climate change is likely to exacerbate these problems in the future. Stressors do not act in isolation; for example pesticide exposure can impair both detoxification mechanisms and immune responses, rendering bees more susceptible to parasites. It seems certain that chronic exposure to multiple, interacting stressors is driving honey bee colony losses and declines of wild pollinators, but such interactions are not addressed by current regulatory procedures and studying these interactions experimentally poses a major challenge. In the meantime, taking steps to reduce stress on bees would seem prudent; incorporating flower-rich habitat into farmland, reducing pesticide use through adopting more sustainable farming methods, and enforcing effective quarantine measures on bee movements are all practical measures that should be adopted. Effective monitoring of wild pollinator populations is urgently needed to inform management strategies into the future.
Many plants defend themselves against herbivores by chemical deterrents in their tissues and the presence of such substances in floral nectar means that pollinators often encounter them when foraging. The effect of such substances on the foraging behaviour of pollinators is poorly understood. Using artificial flowers in tightly-controlled laboratory settings, we examined the effects of the alkaloid nicotine on bumblebee foraging performance. We found that bumblebees confronted simultaneously with two equally rewarded nicotine-containing and nicotine-free flower types are deterred only by unnaturally high nicotine concentrations. This deterrence disappears or even turns into attraction at lower nectar-relevant concentrations. The alkaloid has profound effects on learning in a dose-dependent manner. At a high natural dose, bees learn the colour of a nicotine-containing flower type more swiftly than a flower type with the same caloric value but without nicotine. Furthermore, after experiencing flowers containing nicotine in any tested concentration, increasing numbers of bumblebees stay more faithful to these flowers, even if they become a suboptimal choice in terms of reward. These results demonstrate that alkaloids enhance pollinator flower constancy, opening new perspectives in co-evolutionary process between plants and pollinators.
Neonicotinoid pesticides have been linked to global declines of beneficial insects such as bumblebees. Exposure to trace levels of these chemicals causes sub-lethal effects, such as reduced learning and foraging efficiency. Complex behaviours may be particularly vulnerable to the neurotoxic effects of neonicotinoids. Such behaviours may include buzz pollination (sonication), in which pollinators, usually bees, use innate and learned behaviours to generate high-frequency vibrations to release pollen from flowers with specialised anther morphologies. This study assesses the effect of field-realistic, chronic exposure to the widely-used neonicotinoid thiamethoxam on the development of sonication buzz characteristics over time, as well as the collection of pollen from buzz-pollinated flowers. We found that the pollen collection of exposed bees improved less with increasing experience than that of unexposed bees, with exposed bees collecting between 47% and 56% less pollen by the end of 10 trials. We also found evidence of two distinct strategies for maximising pollen collection: (1) extensions to the duration of individual buzzes and (2) extensions of the overall time spent buzzing. We find new complexities in buzz pollination, and conclude that the impacts of field-realistic exposure to a neonicotinoid pesticide may seriously compromise this important ecosystem service.