White flowers finish last: pollen-foraging bumble bees show biased learning in a floral color polymorphism


Pollinator-driven selection is thought to drive much of the extraordinary diversity of flowering plants. Plants that produce floral traits preferred by particular pollinators are more likely to receive conspecific pollen and to evolve further adaptations to those pollinators that enhance pollination and ultimately generate floral diversity. Two mechanisms in particular, sensory bias and learning, are thought to explain how pollinator preference can contribute to divergence and speciation in flowering plants. While the preferences of pollinators, such as bees, flies, and birds, are frequently implicated in patterns of floral trait evolution, the role of learning in generating reproductive isolation and trait divergence for different floral types within plant populations is not well understood. Floral color polymorphism in particular provides an excellent opportunity to examine how pollinator behavior and learning might maintain the different floral morphs. In this study we asked if bumble bees showed innate preferences for different color morphs of the pollen-only plant Solanum tridynamum, whether bees formed preferences for the morphs with which they had experience collecting pollen from, and the strength of those learned preferences. Using an absolute conditioning protocol, we gave bees experience collecting pollen from a color polymorphic plant species that offered only pollen rewards. Despite initially-naïve bees showing no apparent innate bias toward human-white versus human-purple flower morphs, we did find evidence of a bias in learning. Specifically, bees learned strong preferences for purple corollas, but learned only weak preferences for hypochromic (human-white) corollas. We discuss how our results might explain patterns of floral display evolution, particularly as they relate to color polymorphisms. Additionally, we propose that the ease with which floral visual traits are learned—i.e., biases in learning—can influence the evolution of floral color as a signal to pollinators.

Document Type





Biases in learning, Bumble bee, Color polymorphism, Learning, Pollen reward, Preference

Publication Date


Journal Title

Evolutionary Ecology