This 'Headbanging' Bee Pollinates Like a Rock Star

It's easy to see how Australia's blue-banded bee earned its common name. (Photo: Chiswick Chap/Wikimedia Commons)

Gathering pollen is hard enough when you're part of a colony, like honeybees or bumblebees. Solitary bees have to do all the work themselves, although one species in Australia has used its head to come up with a surprisingly efficient strategy.

The blue-banded bee was recently filmed in super slow-motion video by scientists hoping to learn how it pollinates flowers. Their video, embedded above, reveals for the first time that blue-banded bees shake pollen loose with high-speed headbanging. By moving their heads up to 350 times per second, the insects create vibrations that jostle a flower's pollen into the air like salt from a shaker.

"We were absolutely surprised," says Sridhar Ravi, an engineering researcher at Australia's RMIT University, in a statement. "We were so buried in the science of it, we never thought about something like this. This is something totally new."

Some bees use a technique known as "buzz pollination," in which they hold onto a flower and rapidly move their flight muscles to release more pollen. But blue-banded bees are apparently the first known species to use Iron Maiden pollination.

blue-banded bee
Headbanging may help blue-banded bees forage more efficiently than bumblebees. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Discovering this unique behavior is valuable in itself, especially since blue-banded bees are important native pollinators across Australia, inhabiting every state but Tasmania. But according to Ravi and his research team — Harvard University biologist Callin Switzer and University of Adelaide bee expert Katja Hogendoorn — it may also enable new advances in fields ranging from agriculture to robotics.

Because the bees move their heads so quickly, studying their physiology could lead to better understanding of muscle stress, the researchers say, or even provide insights for designing miniature flying robots. One of the most promising applications, however, goes back to why this adaptation arose in the first place: pollen.

Using tomato plants, the study compared blue-banded bees' pollination style with that of North American bumblebees, which are often used to commercially pollinate tomatoes in greenhouses. Unlike the headbanging Aussie bees, bumblebees used the more traditional buzz method. After landing on a flower, they grabbed the anther in their mandibles and shook pollen out by tensing their wing muscles.

The strategies seem pretty similar, relying on the same principle but using different means to create vibrations. But by recording the audio frequency and duration of bees' buzzing, the researchers say they were able to prove blue-banded bees vibrate flowers at a higher rate than bumblebees and spend less time per flower.

blue-banded bee
Blue-banded bees sometimes rest at night by biting onto stems or branches. (Photo: James Niland/flickr)

Bumblebees aren't found on mainland Australia, Ravi and his colleagues point out, so the country's greenhouse tomatoes typically use mechanical pollination. But with such an effective native pollinator right under their noses, Australian tomato farmers may want to take a closer look at their local headbangers.

"Our earlier research has shown that blue-banded bees are effective pollinators of greenhouse tomatoes," Hogendoorn says. "This new finding suggests blue-banded bees could also be very efficient pollinators — needing fewer bees per hectare."

The study, which will appear in an upcoming edition of the journal Arthropod-Plant Interactions, also highlights the importance of native bees in general. Their pollination efforts are often overlooked due to the widespread popularity of European honeybees, but they play a vital role in their ecosystems — especially in the face of modern environmental calamities like colony collapse disorder.

In other words, whether they're into heavy metal or something milder, this video is yet another reminder that native bees rock.