Male and female bees may look similar, but they have dramatically different dining habits, according to a new study. Despite both needing nectar to survive, they get this nutrient from different flowers—so different, in fact, that males and females might as well belong to separate species.
To make the find, researchers spent 11 weeks observing the foraging habits of 152 species of bees in several flower-rich New Jersey fields. Then they brought the insects—nearly 19,000 in all—back to the lab and meticulously identified their species and sex.
Males and females rarely drank nectar from the same type of flower, the team reports. Using a statistical test the researchers found that male and female bee diets overlap significantly less than would be expected at random.
The preferences probably stem from the distinct physiological and reproductive demands of the two sexes. Males take nectar only for immediate energy, and they typically avoid flowers that produce no nectar. Females—the worker bees—consume nectar, too, but also carry pollen from the fields to their hive. These tasks require females to visit a greater diversity of flowers.
These dinner distinctions could affect strategies for conserving bees, the researchers contend. Planting alluring flowers near stressed colonies can help bees get enough food. But if those blossoms aren’t tasty to males as well as females, hives could still suffer.
*Update, 17 December, 1:50 p.m.: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that this study has not yet been published in a journal.