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Behavioral suites mediate group-level foraging dynamics in communities of tropical stingless bees


Competition for floral resources is a key force shaping pollinator communities, particularly among social bees. The ability of social bees to recruit nestmates for group foraging is hypothesized to be a major factor in their ability to dominate rich resources such as mass-flowering trees. We tested the role of group foraging in attaining dominance by stingless bees, eusocial tropical pollinators that exhibit high diversity in foraging strategies. We provide the first experimental evidence that meliponine group foraging strategies, large colony sizes and aggressive behavior form a suite of traits that enable colonies to improve dominance of rich resources. Using a diverse assemblage of Brazilian stingless bee species and an array of artificial "flowers" that provided a sucrose reward, we compared species' dominance and visitation under unrestricted foraging conditions and with experimental removal of group-foraging species. Dominance does not vary with individual body size, but rather with foraging group size. Species that recruit larger numbers of nestmates (Scaptotrigona aff. depilis, Trigona hyalinata, Trigona spinipes) dominated both numerically (high local abundance) and behaviorally (controlling feeders). Removal of group-foraging species increased feeding opportunities for solitary foragers (Frieseomelitta varia, Melipona quadrifasciata and Nannotrigona testaceicornis). Trigona hyalinata always dominated under unrestricted conditions. When this species was removed, T. spinipes or S. aff. depilis controlled feeders and limited visitation by solitary-foraging species. Because bee foraging patterns determine plant pollination success, understanding the forces that shape these patterns is crucial to ensuring pollination of both crops and natural areas in the face of current pollinator declines. © The Author(s) 2009.

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