Sunday, 29 May 2011

Racing male tree bumblebees

ResearchBlogging.orgIn the last two weeks, the garden has been overtaken by frenzied male bumblebees. They follow a set circuit, round and round, racing from bush to bush and then having a little bumble in each. If you wait for a bit on a particular spot on the route, you are likely to see another bumblebee a few minutes later passing by in the same direction, doing exactly the same. Most of the males I have been able to identify doing this are Bombus hypnorum. Today, a male B. hypnorum - which can be distinguished from the female by his white moustache - got trapped inside the conservatory and I had his portrait taken (above). Many male bumblebees have recently emerged from their nests, never to return, and their mission is to find queens and mate with as many as possible. In many bumblebee species, males' strategy consists on tracing a route, sometimes hundreds of meters long, often circular, depending on the species, and marking certain places along the route with pheromones produced by scent glands in their jaws. Males join already set routes and therefore many males, some of them probably their siblings, go round the same routes every day, stopping to feed occasionally. Queens encountering a route are attracted by the pheromone and are then intercepted by males. The discovery and first description of these male bumblebee flight paths - from Bombus hortorum males - dates back to Charles Darwin, from observations he carried out at Down House. Although he didn't realise pheromones were involved, he noticed bumblebee routes and them stopping and bumbling at places he called "buzzing places", and marveled at the fact that the same or very similar routes were used year after year:

I then followed their route for about a hundred and fifty yards until they came to a tall ash, and all along this line they buzzed at various fixed spots. At the far end, near a pollard oak, the track divided into two as shown in the plan. On some days all the bees flew in the direction I have described, but on others some arrived from the opposite direction. From observations made on favourable days, I think that the majority of individuals must fly in a wide circle. They stop every now and then to suck at flowers. I confirmed that whilst in flight they move at about ten miles an hour, but they lose a considerable amount of time at the buzzing places. The routes remain the same for a considerable time, and the buzzing places are fixed within an inch. I was able to prove this by stationing five or six of my children each close to a buzzing place, and telling the one farthest away to shout out " here is a bee " as soon as one was buzzing around. The others followed this up, so that the same cry of " here is a bee " was passed on from child to child without interruption until the bees reached the buzzing place where I myself was standing.

  This sketch of the grounds of Down House shows the part of the male bumblebee flight route studied by Darwin with the help of his children. What fun must have been to have him as a dad!


Freeman, R.B. (1968). Charles Darwin on the routes of male bumblebees. BULLETIN OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM (NATURAL HISTORY) HISTORICAL SERIES , 3 (6), 177-189.

Stiles, Edmund W. (1976). Comparison of Male Bumblebee Flight Paths: temperate and tropical. Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society., 49 (2), 266-274.


Phil said...

I just wanted to say that I think your blog is absolutely brilliant - everytime I drop in I learn something! Thanks.

Blackbird said...

Thank you for your comment Phil, much appreciated. I really enjoy following yours as well, although I don't comment much.