Fertilizers change the way bumblebees ‘see’ flowers by altering the electric field that attracts them to pollinate, study finds

An annotated photo of a bumblebee flying above the flowers indicates

An annotated photo of a bumblebee looking for flowers to pollinate.Robert Pickett/Getty Images/Insider

  • Bees leave an electrical trace on pollinated flowers, indicating to other bees that the flower has been pulled.

  • One study found that fertilizers alter this electric field and prevent bumblebees from fertilizing.

  • Bees are essential pollinators, so understanding how chemicals affect their behavior is vital.

According to a study, fertilizers can change the way flowers “appear” to bees and discourage them from pollinating.

Flowers attract bees using small electrical fields that bees can learn to recognize. The study, published Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal PNAS Nexus, found that fertilizers alter these electric fields and bees seem to find these changes very strange.

Flowers attract bees with electrical charges

In the study, the scientists investigated whether fertilizers affected the color, smell or electrical charge of the flower of bumblebees, a species of docile bee that was easy to use in the experiments.

Bees use a number of cues to decide which flower to land on. Like us, they are attracted to certain smells and colors, but bees rely on an additional characteristic: the electric field of a flower.

When bees fly through the air, their bodies become positively charged. When they encounter negatively charged flowers, their little bodies feel the flower’s electric field like a magnet.

When they pollinate, the bees modify the electric field of the flowers. The next bees that come will be able to tell from the electric field that these flowers are probably uprooted and will completely ignore them.

A bumblebee is seen up close with its face covered in pollen

A bumblebee pollinates a dandelion in Glacier National Park, Montana, USA.Ed Reschke/Getty images

Fertilizers change the electric field

The study found that spraying a field with synthetic fertilizers did not change the color or smell of the flower.

But it affected the “magnitude and dynamics” of the electric field – essentially how the flower’s electric fields would resemble bees, study author and biophysicist Ellard Hunting from the University of Bristol told Insider. .

“If you imagine that in terms of vision, it’s like the light is too bright and blinds them,” study author and biophysicist Ellard Hunting from the University of Bristol told Insider.

Bees are not only attracted to the flower’s negative charge, they can also learn to read specific characteristics of electric fields, a 2013 study by the same group showed.

This study found that bees could be trained to recognize artificial electric fields with different properties to find a sweet treat.

To test whether the sprayed flower’s electric field repelled bees, scientists artificially charged flowers to mimic those electric fields. They found that bumblebees were more likely to avoid these flowers.

This will likely have a ripple effect as the bees can learn from the experience, Hunter said.

“If you spray a field and the bees are exploring a field and it seems to them, ‘Okay, that’s not good,’ then they won’t go there anymore and they’ll communicate that to each other,” said said Hunting.

Bees are essential pollinators

Fertilizers aren’t the only chemicals that can alter the electric field, Hunter said. It is likely that other chemicals like pesticides, for example, will have a similar effect, he said.

Whether the fertilizers were sprayed is also an important factor, he said. If they had been added to the ground, they would have interacted with the flowers in a completely different way.

But there is still a lot to understand about how chemicals change the way bees spot flowers and this information is crucial.

Bees pollinate about a third of the world’s crops. And two-thirds of fruit and seed crops depend on pollinators, including bees, for sustained production, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Administration.

Without bees, humans would have to give up some of our most nutritious fruits and vegetables, including berries, apples, almonds, cucumbers and peppers, Insider previously reported.

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