Energetic optimisation of foraging honeybees: Flexible change of strategies in response to environmental challenges

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Abstract

Heterothermic insects like honeybees, foraging in a variable environment, face the challenge of keeping their body temperature high to enable immediate flight and to promote fast exploitation of resources. Because of their small size they have to cope with an enormous heat loss and, therefore, high costs of thermoregulation. This calls for energetic optimisation which may be achieved by different strategies. An 'economizing' strategy would be to reduce energetic investment whenever possible, for example by using external heat from the sun for thermoregulation. An 'investment-guided' strategy, by contrast, would be to invest additional heat production or external heat gain to optimize physiological parameters like body temperature which promise increased energetic returns. Here we show how honeybees balance these strategies in response to changes of their local microclimate. In a novel approach of simultaneous measurement of respiration and body temperature foragers displayed a flexible strategy of thermoregulatory and energetic management. While foraging in shade on an artificial flower they did not save energy with increasing ambient temperature as expected but acted according to an 'investment-guided' strategy, keeping the energy turnover at a high level (∼56-69 mW). This increased thorax temperature and speeded up foraging as ambient temperature increased. Solar heat was invested to increase thorax temperature at low ambient temperature ('investment-guided' strategy) but to save energy at high temperature ('economizing' strategy), leading to energy savings per stay of ∼18-76% in sunshine. This flexible economic strategy minimized costs of foraging, and optimized energetic efficiency in response to broad variation of environmental conditions.

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Stabentheiner, A., & Kovac, H. (2014). Energetic optimisation of foraging honeybees: Flexible change of strategies in response to environmental challenges. PLoS ONE, 9(8). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0105432

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