Honey Bee (Apis Mellifera) Foraging Preferences are Negatively Correlated with Alfalfa Leafcutting Bee (Megachile Rotundata) Productivity in Virginian Landscapes

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Virginia Tech


Honey bees (Apis mellifera) may serve as bioindicators of habitat quality for themselves and also other insect pollinators because we can observe, decode, map, and analyze the information encoded in the waggle dance communication behavior, which allows us to know where and when bees are collecting high quality forage. Previously we measured honey bee foraging dynamics for two years (2018-2019) by waggle dance decoding at three geographically distanced sites in Virginia (Blacksburg, Winchester, Suffolk), consisting of different dominant landcover types. Here we use those data on where and when honey bees were finding profitable resources throughout the season to predict the success of a non-Apis bee in these same landscapes.

Alfalfa leafcutting bees (Megachile rotundata) are managed, polylectic, solitary, cavity-nesting bees that are widely naturalized in North America. We selected M. rotundata as a model organism to validate the honey bee foraging data because they share some characteristics with other cavity nesting wild bees, but they are a tractable study system because they are commercially reared and can be purchased for study. At each of the three sites, we installed 15 nest box stations, each stocked with nesting materials and 160 M. rotundata cocoons, at varying distances and directions from the original honey bee hive locations. Most importantly, nest box stations were distributed across a range of honey bee foraging propensities, calculated as the mean foraging probability determined from our honey bee waggle dance decoding data, within a 300m buffer around each nest box. We hypothesized that honey bee foraging probability would positively correlate with M. rotundata cocoon production and survival.

For two years (2021-2022) from May-August, we monitored the nest boxes and also collected data on the relative abundance of floral resources at each of the 15 stations per site. At the end of each season, we collected nesting materials and counted both M. rotundata along with incidental (i.e., non-M. rotundata) wild bee cocoons. M. rotundata cocoon productivity varied by location (log-likelihood ratio test: χ2 = 311.0, df = 2, p < 0.001), with Winchester as the most productive location (mean cocoon count (95% CI): 26.2 (23.7 to 28.9)), followed by Blacksburg (20.4 (18.2 to 22.9)), and Suffolk (4.4 (3.5 to 5.5)). The abundance of clover, both red and white, had a significant positive effect on ALCB productivity (log-likelihood ratio test: χ2 = 778.36, < 0.001). On the other hand, the number of ALCB cocoons decreased significantly with the count of Trypoxylon wasp cocoons present in the nest boxes (log-likelihood ratio test: χ2 = 54.37, < 0.001). Most importantly, we found that there was an overall negative relationship between honey bee foraging probability and alfalfa leafcutting bee cocoon productivity ((log-likelihood ratio test: χ2 = 55.42, < 0.001), where areas of higher honey bee foraging probability were associated with lower levels of alfalfa leafcutting bee productivity. This surprising result is in the opposite direction to our original hypothesis that preferred honey bee foraging areas in the landscape, as indicated by decoded waggle dance data, would be positively correlated with alfalfa leafcutting bee productivity. These data demonstrate that while honey bees may indeed act as bioindicators to other insect pollinators, this indication will likely be species and context specific and may even specify the opposite direction.



Honey Bee, Alfalfa Leafcutting Bee, waggle dance, bioindicator