Sunflowers Make Bumblebees Poop

Sunflowers make Bumblebees poop—a lot. Here’s why that’s good.

Story by Elizabeth Anne Brown

Bumblebees and other pollinators face many threats, including pesticide exposureclimate change, habitat loss due to agriculture and development, and pathogens that ravage multiple species. But a recent finding may help lighten their load.

A common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens) gathers pollen in a field of yellow sunflowers, plants whose pollen helps the insects expel parasites.© Photograph by Bill Berry, Getty

Previous studies have shown sunflower pollen can work like a medicine for bumblebees afflicted by a parasite called Crithidia bombi, a single-celled organism that takes up residence in the bee’s gut and harms their health. But scientists couldn’t explain how sunflower pollen vanquished C. bombi—did it boost the bees’ immune function, or perhaps poison the parasite directly?

New research, published in the Journal of Insect Physiology, shows the answer is deceptively simple. “Sunflower pollen makes bumblebees poo a whole lot,” says lead author Jonathan Giacomini, which flushes the parasite out.

Plant products like nectar and pollen are a treasure trove of potential insect medicines that scientists are just beginning to understand, he adds. “There are natural things out there that bees are interacting with that can be beneficial for them,” Giacomini says. And by making changes to the landscape, scientists hope we can help give bees a fighting chance.

If you happen upon a fuzzy, buzzing, flying creature in eastern North America, there’s a strong chance it’s a common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens). Yellow and black striped with a rump covered in soft hairs, they’re social insects that live in colonies and love a good crevice—they build their homes in birdhouses, woodpiles, abandoned burrows, and dense grasses.

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