A German scientist has attached tiny radio transmitters to the backs of tropical bees in order to track the insects on their floral pollen forays. The researcher’s study provides startling new insights into the vast distances that bees cover in their never-ending search for nectar from rare flowers in Panama.

Some of the iridescent blue-green orchid bees were found to buzz tirelessly for surprisingly long distances. One even crossed the shipping lanes of the Panama Canal.

The study has given researchers new insights into the role of bees in tropical forest ecosystems. Working in Panama, scientists trapped 17 orchid bees of the common species Exaerete frontalis and attached a 300 milligram radio beacon onto the back of each.

The signals they transmitted were used to track their movements in and around the dense forest where they lived.

Professor Martin Wikelski from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany, said: “By following the radio signals, we discovered that male orchid bees spent most of their time in small core areas, but could take off and visit areas farther away.

“One male even crossed over the shipping lanes in the Panama Canal, flying at least five kilometres, and returned a few days later,” he added.

Previously researchers have struggled to trace the movements of bees, following individuals marked with paint or using radar which does not work well in forests.

“Carrying the transmitter could reduce the distance that the bees travel, but even if the flight distances we record are the minimum distances that these orchid bees can fly, they are impressive, long-distance movements,” said Dr Roland Kays, from New York State Museum, a co-author of the research published in the online journal Public Library of Science (PLoS) One.

Pollination by bees and other insects is critical to the diversity and continued growth of flowers and trees in tropical forests. The new study is the first to use radio transmitters to track bees in a forest habitat. Similar research may now be undertaken in temperate forests, where bees also play a vital role.

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