Nectar-Living Microbes Influence Pollinator’s Foraging Preference

Hear that honey bee buzzing toward a flower? It’s not just the nectar that she’s scented.

Nectar-living microbes release scents or volatile compounds, too, and can influence a pollinator’s foraging preference, according to newly published research led by UC Davis community ecologist Rachel Vannette.

Honey bee heading toward lupine. Bees are drawn to the scent of blossoms but nectar-living microbes release scents or volatile compounds, too, according to newly published research by UC Davis community ecologist Rachel Vannette. Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey

The groundbreaking research, published in the current edition of New Phytologist journal, shows that nectar-inhabiting species of bacteria and fungi “can influence pollinator preference through differential volatile production,” said Vannette, an assistant professor in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.

In their study, the Vannette team researchers first examined field flowers for the presence of nectar-inhabiting microbes, and in collaboration with co-authors Caitlin Rering and John Beck of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS), Gainesville, Fla, characterized the headspace of four common fungi and bacteria in a nectar analog. Next, they used an intricate setup to quantify the antennal and behavior responses of honey bees to the chemical compounds. Finally, when they examined the scent of flowers in the field, they found that flowers which contained high densities of microorganisms also contained volatile compounds likely produced by those microbes, suggesting that microbial scent production can be detected and used by pollinators.

Although microbes commonly inhabit floral nectar, microbial species differ in volatile profiles, they found. “Honey bees detected most of the microbial volatiles or scents that we tested,” Vannette said, “and they distinguished the solutions of yeasts or bacteria based on volatiles only.” This suggests that pollinators could choose among flowers based on the microbes that inhabit those flowers.

Microbial stains (fungi and bacteria) isolated from floral nectar.
Photo by Rachel Vannette

The yeast Metschnikowia reukaufii produced the most distinctive compounds (some shared with the fruity flavors in wine) and was the most attractive of all microbes compared. This yeast is commonly found in flower nectar and is thought to hitch a ride on pollinators to travel from one flower to the next. Its scent production may help it attract pollinators, which then help the yeast disperse among flowers.

The Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, UC Davis, provided the honey bees. More than 20 species of flowers–mostly natives–were used in the survey, including canyon delphinium or canyon larkspur (Delphinium nudicaule), sticky monkey flower (Mimulus aurantiacus), salvia (Lepechinia calycina) and purple Chinese houses (Collinsia heterophylla). The samplings were done in the spring and early summer, when the natives are at their peak.

Co-authors of the paper are Caitlin Rering, postdoctoral fellow at USDA-ARS, Gainesville, Fla.; John Beck researcher at USDA-ARS; Griffin Hall, junior specialist in the Vannette lab; and Mitch McCartney in UC Davis Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

The USDA and USDA-ARS funded the research.

Kathy Keatley Garvey
UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology
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