Bumblebees Communicate with Flowers Via Electric Fields

First Posted: Feb 21, 2013 10:04 PM EST

It's easy to think that flowers don't communicate with each other, well at least not in the traditional sense, but new a new discovery shows that electric fields allow them to communicate with bumblebees and possibly other species, as well as with humans.

Dominic Clarke and Heather Whitney from the University of Bristol wrote that bumblebees can sense the electric field that surrounds a flower. The new research shows that bumblebees are able to learn to distinguish between fields produced by different floral shapes, or use them to work out whether a flower has been recently visited by other bees.

Writing in the journal Naturwissenschaften -- The Science of Nature, the researchers said they observed whether bees could distinguish between solid-color and veined flowers, and which type of flower bees preferred when they were looking for nectar.

"Flowers are like giant advertising billboards for bees. We have known for a long time that flowers use color and smell to advertise to their pollinators," PhD student Dominic Clark wrote in the statement.

"More recently though, it is being discovered that flowers take advantage of more and more of their pollinators' senses to send their messages."

The team studied almost 200 bees collecting pollen from petunias to reveal the electrical relationship for the first time.

The research, published in Science Express, took the team three years to complete and involved watching each bee visit a flower up to 50 times.

The authors conclude: "Venation patterns might be prevalent in nature because they can be useful nectar guides, particularly when they also increase flower visibility. But it appears that the color contrast of a flower with its background has a greater influence on bee preference."

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