If you want a dog to stalk something, it helps to let them sniff an object to pick up the scent. Now researchers are reporting Current biology on September 17, found that bee scent training in the hive could work the same way – and that this approach could make bees more efficient at pollinating the desired crop. The results show that bees given scented foods with smells mimicking sunflower favored a significant increase in sunflower production.
“We show that it is possible to condition the bees for a rewarded scent inside the colony, and this experiment changes the behaviors of the bees guided by the scent later,” says Walter Farina of the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. “The most surprising and relevant result is that foraging preferences for the target crop are so prolonged and intensive that they have promoted significant increases in crop yields.”
Farina’s team had previously shown that bees could establish stable, long-term memory linked to food odors inside the nest. They also knew that these beehive memories could influence bees’ choices about which plants to visit later.
To raise bees with a memory that would later aid foraging on sunflowers, researchers first developed a simple synthetic scent blend that bees associated with the natural floral scent of sunflowers. Then they fed the beehives with fragrant food. They found that these early experiences and memories of the scent of the sunflower influenced the bees’ foraging preferences later, as was inferred by decoding their waggle dances.
The training of bees led them to visit sunflowers more. These trained bees also brought more sunflower pollen into the hive. This increase in visits and foraging on sunflowers also increased flower seed production from 29 to 57 percent.
“With this procedure, it is possible to bias the foraging activity of bees and significantly increase yields,” says Farina. “In other words, pollination services could be improved in pollinator-dependent crops using simple simulated odors as part of a precision pollination strategy.”
Researchers say they are currently studying other crops dependent on pollinators, including almonds, pears and apples. Ultimately, their goal is to develop a range of novel odor mimics to improve pollination efficiency and productivity for many important agricultural crops.
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