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Bumblebees leave foot odor behind on flowers

Chemical signatures enable the insects to remember their prior landings and distinguish the smell of their nest mates and unfamiliar bees

by Sarah Everts
March 13, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 11

Credit: Shutterstock
When bumblebees land on a flower, they leave behind their foot odor, which stems in part from (Z)-9-tricosene (shown).
Photo bumblebee landing on a flower.
Credit: Shutterstock
When bumblebees land on a flower, they leave behind their foot odor, which stems in part from (Z)-9-tricosene (shown).

Not only do bumblebees have smelly feet, but the insects also leave an imprint of their foot odor on flowers they visit. In fact, the hydrocarbon chemical signature is so strong that it can be detected for about 24 hours after being deposited. A team of researchers led by Richard F. Pearce of the University of Bristol reports that bumblebees visiting flowers can also decipher whether the leftover foot funk is their own, a nest mate’s, or that of an entirely unknown bumblebee. The researchers think being able to distinguish these odor prints could prevent bees from making redundant visits to the same nectar source (Sci. Rep. 2017, DOI: 10.1038/srep43872). Bumblebees aren’t the only insects to leave behind smelly foot residues as they go about their day: Wasps, termites, and ants also secrete mixtures of hydrocarbons from their feet that give each individual its own personal aroma. The secretions also help with adhesion and with avoiding desiccation. For bumblebees, their signatures often include (Z)-9-tricosene and other long-chain hydrocarbons, and the relative concentration of these components uniquely identifies an individual. The new findings represent the first time researchers have been able to show that bumblebees can distinguish their odor from that of their nest mates, Pearce notes.


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