Inorganic nitrogen derived from foraging honey bees could have adaptive benefits for the plants they visit.
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In most terrestrial ecosystems, nitrogen (N) is the most limiting nutrient for plant growth. Honey bees may help alleviate this limitation because their feces (frass) have high concentration of organic nitrogen that may decompose in soil and provide inorganic N to plants. However, information on soil N processes associated with bee frass is not available. The objectives of this work were to 1) estimate the amount of bee frass produced by a honey bee colony and 2) evaluate nitrogen mineralization and ammonia volatilization from bee frass when surface applied or incorporated into soil. Two cage studies were conducted to estimate the amount of frass produced by a 5000-bee colony, and three laboratory studies were carried out in which bee frass, surface-applied or incorporated into soil, was incubated at 25(o)C for 15 to 45 days. The average rate of bee frass production by a 5,000-bee colony was estimated at 2.27 to 2.69 g N month(-1). Nitrogen mineralization from bee frass during 30 days released 20% of the organic N when bee frass was surface applied and 34% when frass was incorporated into the soil. Volatilized NH3 corresponded to 1% or less of total N. The potential amount of inorganic N released to the soil by a typical colony of 20,000 bees foraging in an area similar to that of the experimental cages (3.24 m(2)) was estimated at 0.62 to 0.74 g N m(-2) month(-1) which may be significant at a community scale in terms of soil microbial activity and plant growth. Thus, the deposition of available N by foraging bees could have adaptive benefits for the plants they visit, a collateral benefit deriving from the primary activity of pollination.