Effect of local spatial plant distribution and conspecific density on bumble bee foraging behaviour



1. Size variations in pollinator populations may modify competitive interactions among foragers. Competition among pollinators has been shown to lead to one of two contrasting behaviours: either specialisation to the most profitable plant species or generalisation to several species. When foraging, pollinators are also confronted with heterogeneity in the spatial distribution of plant resources. Because variations in both the forager density and plant spatial distribution can affect pollinator behaviour, focus was on the interactive effect of these two factors.

2. Bumble bee (Bombus terrestris L.) individuals were trained on a focal species (Lotus corniculatus L.) and experimentally tested whether variations in the forager density (two or six bumble bees foraging together), plant community spatial distribution (two plant species: L. corniculatus and Medicago sativa, which were either patchily or randomly distributed), and their interaction modified bumble bee foraging behaviour.

3. It was shown that when confronted with a high forager density, bumble bees focused their visits towards the most familiar species, especially when foraging under a random plant distribution. These modifications affected the fruiting of the focal plant species, with a significantly lower reproductive success under low density/patchy conditions.

4. This study demonstrates that the foraging decisions of bumble bees are influenced by variations in both the conspecific density and plant spatial distribution. Given the increasing impact of human activities on plant-pollinator communities, this raises the question of the potential implications of these results for plant communities in natural conditions when confronted with variations in the pollinator density and spatial distribution of plants.