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Climate Change and Bees: Tongues Have Gotten Shorter Due to Decrease in Flower Diversity

Sep 25, 2015 12:25 PM EDT
A queen bumblebee is pictured here, foraging on flowers on the alpine tundra of Pennsylvania Mountain. These bees have had to shorten their tongues to adapt to shallower plants.
(Photo : Christine Carson)

Climate change has not only shrunk plant populations, but has also decreased the length of alpine bumblebee tongues. Flower diversity is on the decline and these insects no longer have a need for their deep-reaching tongues, say researchers from the American Association of the Advancement of Science whose study highlights how some mutual relationships between ecological partners are greatly affected by climate change.  

In this case, this adaptation is beneficial for the bees who, with their long corolla tubes, were better suited to reach the nectar of deep flowers. 

Nicole Miller-Struttman, from the University of Missouri, and colleagues recently studied the decline of these long-tongued bumblebees, focussing on populations throughout high-altitude sites in Colorado where two species of long-tongued alpine bumblebees are known to live.

The researchers compared tongue-lengths of specimens collected from 1966 through 1980, and from 2012 through 2014 and found that tongues have definitely shorted over time.

"It's one of the best examples of the effect of climate that I've seen," Sydney Cameron, an entomologist at the University of Illinois, said in a statement.

Using archived bee specimens and field surveys of bumblebees and host plants, researchers were able to further examine the change in bees. After making note of different body sizes, competing bees in the area and co-evolution with flowers, the researchers concluded that warming summers were the driving force behind this evolution.

"The reality is that long-tube flowers will disappear," Cameron explained, adding that then, "you are losing biodiversity on a major scale."

Now that the researchers understand how alpine bumblebees were forced to adapt to shallower flowers, they can predict future effects of climate change among other species.

The study was recently published in Science

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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