Plants, Pollination and Bees

I am a member of my local(ish) beekeeping group, and last night we were given a fascinating talk by the extremely knowledgeable Malcolm on the finer points of pollination, and the adaptations the honeybee has evolved to facilitate this relationship between flower and insect. This is a huge topic, so here is the first instalment…

Bees visit flowers to gather pollen and nectar. Simply put, pollen is the protein fraction of the bees’ diet, while nectar forms the carbohydrate. In return, flowers use the bees to transport pollen from one flower to the next – causing cross-fertilisation – and reward them with a shot of sweet nectar. Bees eat pollen when they are in the larval stage, and nectar and honey as an adult.

The relationship between flowering plants and insects is a long one, probably at least 100 million years, and in this time, the whole package of bees and flowers has become exquisitely entwined. Anatomically and structurally, both have converged to allow the most efficient exchange of resources, and this culmination of evolutionary pressures is what we witness as beekeepers.

I absolutely love watching my bees really ‘work’ a flower. There is no messing around, no delicacy, just straight in there, legs pushing the anthers and impediments out of the way so they can get to the nectaries. After a second or two, they are on to the next one. This phenomenal cumulative effort on behalf of thousands upon thousands of bee hours is what results in honey. Remember too, that the nectar is not simply sugar water, but a complex blend of sucrose, fructose and glucose molecules in varying proportions, as well as minerals and floral products which will be linked with the biochemistry of the plant. This forms all the elements bees need to thrive, and indicates why bees foraging on monocultures and relying on artificial feeding are not receiving a balanced diet, and supports the argument that a wide selection of plants is vital to honeybee health.

Bees sense the world through the hairs on their body – if you look at a bee, you will see she is covered in thousands of tiny hairs. These detect vibrations, pheromones and other chemical signals, so they essentially hear, smell, taste and touch through these receptors. This enables them to operate in the dark of the hive, and communicate via pathways we simply don’t possess as mammals.

Honeybees see the world differently too as the vision they get from their compound eyes stops before the orange/red end of the visible spectrum we see, but sits firmly in the shorter wavelengths of the ultraviolet, so flowers look completely different to them than they do to us.

Some of the hairs on the bee are quite fluffy and split at the ends, so they attract pollen grains, which can then be scraped off using more bristly hairs at judicious places across the bee’s body, and packed in to the area on the hing leg called the pollen basket, which is essentially a slightly cupped area on the upper segment, encircled with stiff, inwardly-curving hairs.

Worker bee with a fat pollen packet, sporting a faint yellow hue from the pollen on her body

These pollen packs are taken to the storage area of the combs around the brood nest, so they are easily accessible for feeding the grubs.

Here you can see the layers of pollen in the cells of the comb

To be continued.

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