Photoreceptor spectral sensitivity in island and mainland populations of the bumblebee, Bombus terrestris

J Comp Physiol A Neuroethol Sens Neural Behav Physiol. 2007 May;193(5):485-94. doi: 10.1007/s00359-006-0206-6. Epub 2007 Feb 27.


Most species of flower-visiting Hymenoptera are trichromatic, with photoreceptor spectral sensitivity peaks in the UV, blue and green regions of the spectrum. Red flowers, therefore, should be relatively difficult to detect for such insects. Nevertheless, in population biological studies in the bumblebee, Bombus terrestris, the Sardinian island population (B. t. sassaricus) displayed significantly higher responses to red artificial flowers (in tests of innate colour choice and detectability) than several mainland populations of the same species (Chittka et al. in Cognitive ecology of pollination, pp 106-126, 2001; Popul Ecol 46:243-251, 2004). Since there is relatively little physiological data on population differences in sensory systems, we used intracellular recording to compare photoreceptor spectral sensitivity in B. t. sassaricus and the southern European and Mediterranean population, B. t. dalmatinus. The results show both populations to be UV-blue-green trichromats, but with a small but significant increase in long-wave sensitivity in island bees. Spectral peaks were estimated at 348, 435 and 533 nm (B. t. dalmatinus) and 347, 436 and 538 nm (B. t. sassaricus) for UV, blue and green receptors, respectively. There were no significant differences in UV and blue receptor sensitivities. We found no photoreceptors maximally sensitive to red spectral light in the Sardinian population and model calculations indicate that the behavioural population differences in colour responses cannot be directly explained by receptor population differences.

MeSH terms

  • Animal Population Groups
  • Animals
  • Bees / physiology*
  • Color Perception / physiology
  • Electrophysiology
  • Europe
  • Flowers
  • Geography
  • Light*
  • Models, Biological
  • Photoreceptor Cells, Invertebrate / physiology*