Most of us have probably never given much thought to the length of a bee’s tongue – or, for that matter, the fact that bees even have tongues. Yet new research suggests tongue length may be a key factor in bees’ ability to survive their ever-changing environment.
The tongues of bees come in varying lengths and affect which flowers the insects can feed on. Different bee species have characteristic tongue proportions. And researchers can now estimate bee tongue length by evaluating body size and taxonomic relationships.
But why does this matter? Bees with short tongues have some limitations in the type of flowers they can feast on. Their tongues simply can’t reach the nectar of, say, a honeysuckle. But that’s not to say long-tongued bees have an easier time – their ample tongue length can make it difficult to drink from shorter flowers, and shorter flowers tend to abound.
For this reason, long-tongued bees are often ‘specialists,’ feeding on just a few preferred deep-throated flower species. Because they have a limited number of nectar sources, specialist bees are more vulnerable to food shortages.
Warming temperatures can mean better outcomes for shallow flowers but trouble for deep-throated ones – which, spells trouble for the long-tongued specialist bees that rely on their nectar. And as warming weather causes the early flowering of many plants, the demand for generalist short-tongued bees has increased, leaving long-tongued species even more at risk.
While it may seem like an odd metric, researchers believe studying bee tongue length can help us understand and mitigate the impact of climate change on specialized bees.
Photo, posted July 22, 2012, courtesy of Treesha Duncan via Flickr.
Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio, with script contribution from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.