In their daily search for food, blue-green orchid bees zip through increasingly scarce patches of tropical forest pollinating rare flowers. Now, for the first time ever, researchers at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute are able to track the routes of these creatures by gluing tiny transmitters to the backs of individual bees. The data they are collecting is yielding new insight into the role bees play in tropical forest ecosystems.
“When people disturb and destroy tropical forest they disrupt pollination systems,” says entomologist David Roubik, senior staff scientist at the Tropical Research Institute. “Now we can track orchid bees to get at the distances and spatial patterns involved in pollination—vital details which have completely eluded us in the past.”
The team trapped 17 iridescent blue-green orchid bees called Exaerete frontalis –a species common in the rainforest. “These bees easily carry a 300-milligram radio transmitter glued onto their backs,” says Martin Wikelski, director of the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology and a research associate at the Smithsonian. “By following the radio signals with a hand-held antenna, we have discovered that male orchid bees spend most of their time in small core areas, but will take off and visit areas farther away.
One male even crossed over the shipping lanes in the Panama Canal, flew 5 kilometres, and returned to Barro Colorado Island a few days later. Such long distance flights, the researchers say, support the claim that bees are major agents of gene flow, connecting widely-dsipersed orchids or other plants which they alone pollinate, over fragmented landscapes and for an extended time. This study proves that “bees are key evolutionary players in allowing orchids and other tropical plants to evolve into diverse taxa that are each spatially rare and thus require long-distance pollination,” the researchers write.
In the past, researchers have struggled to determine the distances that bees travel by following individuals marked with paint, or using radar, which doesn’t work well when trees are in the way. “Carrying a transmitter may reduce the distance that the bees travel. But even if the flight distances we record are the minimum distances that these orchid bees can fly, they are impressive, long-distance movements,” said Roland Kays, curator of mammals at the New York State Museum and a STRI research associate. “These data help to explain how the orchids these bees pollinate can be so rare.”
The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the New York State Museum and the National Geographic Society all provided support for this study. Its co-authors are affiliated with the University of Arizona, Tucson, Cornell University, EcolSciences, Inc. and the New York State Museum.