Bee proboscis

A report has just come out recently highlighting the effects of climate change on bee proboscis. Yes, I had to look up the word “proboscis” also in my dictionary. Since we learn something every day, it came as a surprise (to me) that proboscis is the tongue that our bee uses to slurp up its nectar. (early 17th century via Latin from Greek)

Shaped like an elongated mop, it has been found that the bee proboscis has been shrinking in length as larger flowers decline in numbers. These longer shaped flowers are preferred by some bees but if numbers decline, they will search out smaller more abundant flowers. As this occurs, the bee proboscis’ length will adapt enabling them to collect the most nectar from a larger number of these smaller flowers. How much shorter you ask? The researchers have found a 24% decrease, which is significant.

The change to the bees’ anatomy probably arose because longer-tongued bees tend to be picky eaters, dining mainly on nectar from deep flowers, says lead author Nicole Miller-Struttmann, an evolutionary ecologist at SUNY College at Old Westbury in New York. And when food becomes scarce, it doesn’t pay to be picky.

As beekeepers, we can observe a lot of changes around our hives. However, these changes are slow, subtle and nearly always in isolated incidences. It can be difficult to see any large type of change in bee behavior. On one of my walks recently amongst a field of lupins, (sure, I do this all the time) I observed the odd solitary Bombus. With a tall tapered, colorful flower, you would think lupins would attract honey bees by the dozen. This was not the case. Speaking with the locals, I found that the honey bee arrives much later once the flowers open up. They expend less energy and the open flower facilitates their nectar gathering.


So what sort of tongue does it take to gather nectar from the lupin flower? A very long one! The photo I took below shows just how long the tongue is in comparison to its body. It is documented that the tongue can be anywhere between 9 and 18 mm in length. If you look closely, you will see her proboscis as the fourth extension counting clockwise from its head.




This all leads up to the next question. If the honey bees are not on the lupins, where are they? Bees are one of the most efficient, logical and productive creatures around. So within five minutes walk, I came across their honey house. The low-lying bush of white flowers seen to the left of the cabbage trees in the photo below.




Smothered in bees, they were collecting nectar with the least amount of exerted energy. The flowers are small and clustered closely together by the hundreds. This allows the maximum amount of nectar to be collected in the shortest possible time. So when I asked them how long their proboscis was? About 3-5 mm long they replied politely…



Nicole Miller-Struttmann







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