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A bumblebee worker damaging a plant leaf. Photo: Hannier Pulido, De Moraes and Mescher Laboratories

For tens of millions of years, bees and flowers have evolved together. Flowering provides bees with food, and pollination gives plants a means of reproduction.

What's new: Bumblebee workers appear to be able to control that synchronized symbiosis by damaging the leaves of plants, according to a new study in the journal Science.

What they did: In a set of experiments in the lab and outside, Foteini Pashalidou, Harriet Lambert and their colleagues at ETH Zürich found pollen-starved B. terrestris bees bit holes in leaves, but well-fed bees did not.

  • In another experiment, they placed bees deprived of pollen in mesh cages with either tomato or black mustard plants. They found the speed of flowering increased (one month ahead of schedule for tomatoes and two weeks for black mustard plants).

It's unclear how bees learned this biting behavior and why plants respond by flowering.

  • The researchers compared bites by bees and those made with razors, and they found the damage from bees sped flowering up more than that done mechanically.
  • One possibility is that as bees bite the plant, they inject chemicals that speed up flowering.
"If so, scientists might realize a horticulturist’s dream by deciphering the molecular pathways through which flowering can be accelerated by a full month."
— Lars Chittka of Queen Mary University of London wrote in an accompanying paper

The big picture: Climate change is threatening the timing of the relationship between plants and bees, and it risks starving bees that are emerging early from hibernation.

  • Bee-inflicted damage may provide resilience to the important relationship between flowering and pollination that is under threat, the authors write.

Go deeper

55 mins ago - World

Scoop: Jake Sullivan discussed Saudi-Israel normalization with MBS

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Bloomberg and Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan raised normalization with Israel during his recent meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, three U.S. and Arab sources tell Axios.

Why it matters: Saudi Arabia would be the biggest regional player to sign onto the "Abraham Accords" peace agreement with Israel, and such a major breakthrough would likely convince other Arab and Muslim countries to follow suit.

Tech's leaky world

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Tech companies are learning what everyone in Washington already knows: Leaks of confidential info are inevitable, and "plumbing" operations to close them rarely work.

Why it matters: Most tech firms talk up the power of transparency but prefer to keep details of their operations secret from competitors and the public. Researchers, regulators and the media are increasingly relying on information provided by dissident employees and whistleblowers to see inside companies' workings.

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

First look: Harris wants more union membership in fed workforce

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at a virtual town hall with Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) on Oct. 14. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Vice President Kamala Harris and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh will today announce new guidelines to encourage federal workers to join unions, according to a White House official.

Why it matters: The Biden administration wants to bolster the collective bargaining power of workers across the country – and they are starting at home, with changes in the federal workforce.