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Learning flights in bumblebees

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Female bees and wasps perform structurally elaborate learning flights, when they leave the nest or a food source for the first times. They memorise visual features of the surrounding environment for guidance on their return. We study the learning flights of bumblebees, their structure and changes under different experimental conditions, to understand how insects learn. Because B. terrestris nests in the ground and will collect nectar from low plants, it is possible to compare the learning flights acquiring information about the nest and a feeding site in circumstances in which the visual surroundings of each site are very similar. Differences between nest and feeder departure flights and learning may be related to the greater need of bees to remember the precise position of their nest hole than the location of conspicuous flowers. In contrast, we find that male bumblebees always fly away from the nest without looking back, in keeping with their indifference to their natal nest. They however perform learning flights when departing an artificial feeder that resembled those of females in their complexity and fixations of flowers. These differences in the occurrence of female and male learning flights seem to match the diverse needs of the two sexes to learn about ecologically relevant aspects of their environment.

This talk is part of the Foster Talks series.

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