Study finds how physical traits of flowers affect health of bumble bees

According to new research, specific physical characteristics of flowers impact the health of bumble bees by influencing the spread of a dangerous virus called Crithidia bombi. The research conducted by scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst shows that the length of a flower’s corolla, or petals, affects how this pathogen is transferred between bees.

Scientists have recently sounded the alarm over the “insect apocalypse,” or massive die-off of the world’s bugs. By some estimates, the past 50 years have seen a 75 percent decline in the world’s insect life. Among the many ecological implications of this apocalypse is the collapse of pollinator species, some of which scientists estimate have died back by 90 percent in the US during the last twenty years.

Though there are many reasons for the apocalypse, including habitat loss, pesticide use, and more, one cause is the devastation wrought by pathogens. For bumble bees, a parasite called Crithidia bombi, often transmitted by bee poop, has been a widely prevalent scourge.

One widespread and popular attempt to save the bees has been to plant pollinator gardens. “But what plants ought we to be planting?” asks Jenny Van Wyk, a postdoctoral researcher in biology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the paper’s lead author. “We are trying to gather information on how floral traits impact pollinator health so that we can think beyond species-specific information. That way, we may be able to generalize across species that have similar traits and so help to guide planting decisions.”

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