Pollinators, such as bees, often develop multi-location routes (traplines) to exploit subsets of flower patches within larger plant populations. How individuals establish such foraging areas in the presence of other foragers is poorly explored. Here we investigated the foraging patterns of pairs of bumble bees (Bombus terrestris) released sequentially into an 880m2 outdoor flight cage containing 10 feeding stations (artificial flowers). Using motion-sensitive video cameras mounted on flowers, we mapped the flower visitation networks of both foragers, quantified their interactions and compared their foraging success over an entire day. Overall, bees that were released first (residents) travelled 37% faster and collected 77% more nectar, thereby reaching a net energy intake rate 64% higher than bees released second (newcomers). However, this prior-experience advantage decreased as newcomers became familiar with the spatial configuration of the flower array. When both bees visited the same flower simultaneously, the most frequent outcome was for the resident to evict the newcomer. On the rare occasions when newcomers evicted residents, the two bees increased their frequency of return visits to that flower. These competitive interactions led to a significant (if only partial) spatial overlap between the foraging patterns of pairs of bees. While newcomers may initially use social cues (such as olfactory footprints) to exploit flowers used by residents, either because such cues indicate higher rewards and/or safety from predation, residents may attempt to preserve their monopoly over familiar resources through exploitation and interference. We discuss how these interactions may favour spatial partitioning, thereby maximising the foraging efficiency of individuals and colonies.
Lihoreau, M., Chittka, L., & Raine, N. E. (2016). Monitoring flower visitation networks and interactions between pairs of bumble bees in a large outdoor flight cage. PLoS ONE, 11(3). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150844