May 27, 2010 07:00 AM in Basic Science | 2 comments
Tiny radio transmitters track flight of tropical orchid bees
Rare tropical orchids can be few and far between in the wild, often
separated by spotty landscape and human-made obstacles. But powerful
tropical orchid bees do the leg-or wing-work, flying great distances to
pollinate isolated flowers and keep the flora gene pool fresh.
Just how far and where exactly these bees fly, however, has remained
relatively obscure to researchers. Some studies had tracked bees by marking
them and using bait flowers to lure them in for counting or by scouting out
specific flowers that bees appeared to return to. But these results have
created only a rough sketch of the range and routes of these bees.
A group of researchers now has acquired far more specific data, attaching
tiny, 300-milligram radio transmitters to the backs of male orchid bees
(Exaerete frontalis) to track their movements.
The bees clocked in at an average of 9.5 meters per minute, usually logging
more than three hours of air time a flight. The longest flight recorded was
nearly two kilometers, and one intrepid bee soared over the Panama Canal,
eventually ending up some five kilometers away before returning days later
closer to where it had been caught.
"The data confirm that male orchid bees habitually travel a distance that
can help connect widely dispersed orchids or other plants which they alone
pollinate, and that produce a few short-lived flowers daily," the
researchers concluded in their study, published online May 26 in the journal
Burdening 612-milligram bees with radio transmitters might sound excessive,
but the researchers maintained that the bees can "easily carry" them, Martin
Wikelski, director of the Max Plank Institute for Ornithology, said in a
prepared statement. And another member of the team, Roland Kays, curator of
mammals at the New York State Museum, explained in a statement that
"carrying the transmitter could reduce the distance that the bees travel,
but even if the flight distances we recorded are the minimum distances these
orchid bees can fly, they are impressive, long-distance movements." Of the
14 bees outfitted with transmitters, five were tracked through the full
10-day duration of the transmitter battery life, four were found dead and
the others were lost.
"Radio tracking significantly improves our understanding of bees and the
plants they pollinate," David Roubik, a senior scientist at the Smithsonian
Tropical Research Institute, said in a prepared statement. "Now we can track
orchid bees to get the distances and spatial patterns involved-vital details
which have completely eluded researchers in the past."
"Given the escalating rate of human interference, and the potential for
deterioration of pollination services, it is critical that we start to
understand the complexities of these relationships," the authors noted in
their paper. The new data from this study and others could help inform
conservation studies as well as work in agriculture and general biology. At
the very least, these results "help to explain how orchids these bees
pollinate can be so rare," Kays said.
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