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Football playing drones?

The strangely warm weather this Autumn has resulted in many Winter shrubs like Mahonia and Viburnum bodnantense flowering early. This may be good news for pollinators still gathering food to add to their stores, but it makes the threat of a frost more worrying for gardeners. When it gets cold, honeybees can retire to their hive and snuggle down with the thousands of their sisters and enjoy the honey in the combs at any time. Queen bumblebees hibernate alone in a secure niche if they can find one and will only survive if their fur is thick enough and their internal fat store is big enough to keep them ticking over slowly until the Spring.

If you see a groggy bumblebee this month, she may be too cold to fly rather than hungry and so she will benefit from being brought into a warm place (and offered sugar-water) for a few minutes. Once she has started to move about more actively, it is best to put her back outside under some safe cover, near to where you found her so that she can fly away when she is ready.

Nowadays there are two types of drones in the world of bees. These are: male bees, who do no work and are only produced for mating, and flying mini-helicopters which are being developed to act as artificial pollinators. This research is aimed at helping tomato growers because bumblebees are the only insects that can shake the pollen out of the anthers and effect fertilisation. They do this by landing on the flower and then buzzing, shivering their wing muscles, in an action known as buzz-pollination. The producers of these drones seem to think that by flying them over the flowers, they will agitate them enough to release pollen. This may work for wind-pollinated species in a polytunnel, but it will do nothing to replace the wild insects if they die out. Time will tell how effective these machines are.

Do insects play? An apparently daft question I admit but… Researchers have found that bumblebees can be trained to push a ball into a hole if trained with a sugar-water reward. They were surprised to find that these bees will also voluntarily push balls around even when there is no reward and will choose to walk through a chamber containing balls rather than a parallel empty one. This frivolous behaviour would seem to have no survival value so does this mean that they do it just for fun, to experience enjoyment? Do they have a very low threshold for boredom? Just what are these wonderful furry creatures thinking about as they go about the normal daily business of their short lives?

Adrian Doble

Volunteer with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust

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