The Journal of experimental biology

How to know which food is good for you: bumblebees use taste to discriminate between different concentrations of food differing in nutrient content.

PMID 26202778


In view of the ongoing pollinator decline, the role of nutrition in bee health has received increasing attention. Bees obtain fat, carbohydrates and protein from pollen and nectar. As both excessive and deficient amounts of these macronutrients are detrimental, bees would benefit from assessing food quality to guarantee an optimal nutrient supply. While bees can detect sucrose and use it to assess nectar quality, it is unknown whether they can assess the macronutrient content of pollen. Previous studies have shown that bees preferentially collect pollen of higher protein content, suggesting that differences in pollen quality can be detected either by individual bees or via feedback from larvae. In this study, we examined whether and, if so, how individuals of the buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) discriminate between different concentrations of pollen and casein mixtures and thus nutrients. Bumblebees were trained using absolute and differential conditioning of the proboscis extension response (PER). As cues related to nutrient concentration could theoretically be perceived by either smell or taste, bees were tested on both olfactory and, for the first time, chemotactile perception. Using olfactory cues, bumblebees learned and discriminated between different pollen types and casein, but were unable to discriminate between different concentrations of these substances. However, when they touched the substances with their antennae, using chemotactile cues, they could also discriminate between different concentrations. Bumblebees are therefore able to discriminate between foods of different concentrations using contact chemosensory perception (taste). This ability may enable them to individually regulate the nutrient intake of their colonies.

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