The Ontogeny of Bumblebee Flight Trajectories: From Naïve Explorers to Experienced Foragers
Understanding strategies used by animals to explore their landscape is essential to predict how they exploit patchy resources, and consequently how they are likely to respond to changes in resource distribution. Social bees provide a good model for this and, whilst there are published descriptions of their behaviour on initial learning flights close to the colony, it is still unclear how bees find floral resources over hundreds of metres and how these flights become directed foraging trips. We investigated the spatial ecology of exploration by radar tracking bumblebees, and comparing the flight trajectories of bees with differing experience. The bees left the colony within a day or two of eclosion and flew in complex loops of ever-increasing size around the colony, exhibiting Lévy-flight characteristics constituting an optimal searching strategy. This mathematical pattern can be used to predict how animals exploring individually might exploit a patchy landscape. The bees’ groundspeed, maximum displacement from the nest and total distance travelled on a trip increased significantly with experience. More experienced bees flew direct paths, predominantly flying upwind on their outward trips although forage was available in all directions. The flights differed from those of naïve honeybees: they occurred at an earlier age, showed more complex looping, and resulted in earlier returns of pollen to the colony. In summary bumblebees learn to find home and food rapidly, though phases of orientation, learning and searching were not easily separable, suggesting some multi-tasking.