Background complexity affects colour preference in bumblebees

Naturwissenschaften. 2009 Aug;96(8):921-5. doi: 10.1007/s00114-009-0549-2. Epub 2009 May 15.


Flowers adapted for hummingbird pollination are typically red. This correlation is usually explained by the assertion that nectar- or pollen-stealing bees are "blind" to red flowers. However, laboratory studies have shown that bees are capable of locating artificial red flowers and often show no innate preference for blue over red. We hypothesised that these findings might be artefacts of the simplified laboratory environment. Using bumblebees (Bombus impatiens) that had been trained to visit red and blue artificial flowers, we tested whether colour preference was influenced by complexity of the background on which they were foraging. Many bees were indifferent to flower colour when tested using a uniform green background like those commonly used in laboratory studies, but all bees showed strong colour preferences (usually for blue) when flowers were presented against a photograph of real foliage. Overall, preference for blue flowers was significantly greater on the more realistic, complex background. These results support the notion that the red of "hummingbird syndrome" flowers can function to reduce bee visits despite the ability of bees to detect red and highlight the need to consider context when drawing inferences about pollinator preferences from laboratory data.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bees / physiology*
  • Birds / physiology
  • Color Vision / physiology*
  • Color*
  • Flowers
  • Photoreceptor Cells, Invertebrate / physiology
  • Pollen
  • Pollination / physiology