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Bee Tongue Length Impacts How They Adapt to Change

Jul 16, 2014 12:12 PM EDT

It sounds silly, but how long their tongue is can really be the difference between life and death for some bees. Researchers suggest that in the wake of changing ecosystems, the adaptability of tongue length is crucial to bee populations looking to survive.

Ignasi Bartomeus of the Estación Biológica de Doñana in Sevilla, Spain, and his colleagues at Rutgers University in New Jersey have developed an equation that can help accurately predict the length of a bee's tongue based on body size and taxonomic relationships - that is, the ecological adaptations of specific types of bees.

Bartomeus is due to present his findings to nearly 35,000 of his peers at the 99th Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Sacramento, Calif. next month.

According to the Ecological Society of America, this equation could be an extremely valuable tool in predicting the fate of pollinators around the world, where changes in population counts of certain flowering plants can severely impact bees with "specialized" tongues.

Sliding their tongues down towards the sugar-rich nectar trapped at the center of a flower's petals, bees unwittingly rub against a flower's stamen, collecting pollen on their bodies. When they travel to another flower to feed, that pollen can find its way into the plant's stamen, where it fertilizes a seed. Bees with incredibly long tongues are often referred to as "specialists" because they focus on only a few deep-throated flowers in particular.

However, climate change and extreme weather patterns can impact this natural process in unforeseen ways. Conditions may improve for some more shallow flowers, while deep throated ones decline. Warm weather also promotes the early flowering of many plants  - heightening a demand for more generalized short-tongued bees.

In this way, many short-tongued bees have been encroaching on specialists' territory, promoting the prevalence and reproduction of shallow flowers while leaving deep-throated plants barren.

Bartomeus argues that understanding the dynamics of tongue size can help experts better predict pollinator decline - an already pressing issue first dragged into the public eye after honey bees started dying en masse for reasons unrelated to tongue length.

The work will be presented at the 99th Annual Meeting of the ESA on August 14.

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