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Bumblebees can trick plants into flowering early

Published May 21st, 2020 11:13PM EDT
bumblebee tricks
Image: Sergei Grits/AP/Shutterstock

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  • There’s a secret bumblebee trick that can trigger plants to flower a month earlier than they would otherwise.
  • Researchers in Switzerland discovered that when bumblebees chew a specific pattern into the leaves of a plant, it flowers up to 30 days early.
  • Attempts to replicate the phenomenon by damaging the plants in a similar manner didn’t work.
  • Visit BGR’s homepage for more stories.

Bumblebees are pretty cool. They’re not nasty like wasps, and while they can sting if they are threatened, they’re usually content to just live their lives and avoid humans as much as possible. Now, a new study published in Science reveals a secret trick that bumblebees use to fool plants into flowering early. This makes them even cooler.

The research, which was conducted by scientists in Switzerland, blows the lid off of a technique the bees use when pollen is scarce. It seems all they have to do is let the plants know they’re waiting, and they do that by chewing a very specific pattern into the leaves.

This whole thing is almost too incredible to believe but let me lay it out for you: Due to a combination of the variability of climates and mankind’s own impact on it, bumblebees sometimes find themselves with immature plants and a shortage of pollen. Not content to just wait it out or die, the bees have somehow learned that by chewing a special pattern into the plant’s leaves they can force it to begin flowering earlier than it would have otherwise.

It’s absolutely bonkers.

As the researchers explain in their study, their observations reveal that bumblebees that use this special chewing technique can get a plant to produce flowers 30 days early. That’s a huge shift in the life of the plant, but the bees can make it happen.

Even more interesting — this is where your mind is really going to be blown — when the researchers closely replicated the damage the bees cause, using previously-untouched plants, the plants didn’t care, and didn’t produce flowers as early as they did when the bumblebees did their magic trick to them. The scientists can’t explain it.

“When faced with a shortage of pollen, bumblebees actively damaged plant leaves in a characteristic way, and this behavior resulted in earlier flowering by as much as 30 days,” the researchers write. “Experimenters were not able to fully replicate the results with their own damage, suggesting that there is a distinct method that the bees use to stimulate earlier flowering.”

That’s it. That’s all they could come up with. The bees just have “a distinct method” that, for some incredible reason, triggers plants to flower early.

How did the bees learn to do this? How is it passed on from generation to generation? It’s almost too much to really wrap your head around, but it’s so, so cool.