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The fact that bees pollinate plants and crops is completely incidental. They collect pollen for their own use but as they travel from flower to flower, pollination occurs. But this begs the question: how do bees pollinate?
Many species of bees have pollen baskets or pollen pouches on their hind legs. As they move between flowers in search of nectar, pollen sticks to them. Then, when they travel to another flower, this pollen is deposited and pollination occurs.
Without bees, as many as 90% of wildflowers and 75% of human crops would not be pollinated. It’s therefore very important that they’re supported in their role within the ecosystem.
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Just like humans and animals, plants need to reproduce if their species’ are going to survive. Of course, unlike us, they cannot use the same method of reproduction largely because they do not have the same anatomy and they are stuck in one place so cannot always physically connect with another plant of the same species.
So pollination is essentially plant reproduction and happens when pollen is moved from the male part of a plant to the female part. Most plants have both male and female parts but pollen should be transferred from the male part of one plant to the female part of another. In some cases, plants can self-pollinate, meaning that their pollen can be moved from their male to female parts. But this is a less common method.
Once pollination has occurred, the plant produces a seed or fruit which contains seeds. It is the role of creatures like bees and other pollinators to move pollen from one flower to another. But did you know that some flowers are also pollinated by the wind or by water?
While it is possible that an unpollinated plant might produce some fruit, pollinated plants produce far larger yields which is great news for agriculture and hobby gardeners.
It’s something I have talked about time and time again; without bees and other pollinators, a vast number of our crops would cease to thrive. There’s a common misconception that, without bees, human food supplies would die off altogether. This is not strictly true, especially since we have found ways of artificial pollination. But letting nature take its course is the most effective method.
Many plants rely on bee pollination including things like berries, melons, apples, cucumbers, broccoli, and many others.
In the United States alone, it’s thought that there are as many as 7 million individual bee colonies. A massive portion of these, up to two-thirds, belongs to traveling colonies which are moved around by humans to aid crop pollination throughout the growing season. Not only this, but they’re responsible for producing honey and beeswax which humans use for a variety of applications like medicine, skincare, and even food.
Not only do bees play an important role in the pollination of crops but they create jobs within the apiculture industry. Commercial beekeeping is a big business and racks up billions of dollars of profit each year. Trucks containing temporary apiaries are moved around overnight so that, in the morning, a new colony of bees is ready to pollinate local crops.
While there are lots of animals and insects that pollinate, bees are one of the most reliable in terms of agriculture. That’s because they live in huge colonies so there are always plenty of bees to get the job done. What’s more, being such routine-driven insects, bees are guaranteed to return to their hive at night so they’re incredibly reliable.
To sum it up, humans would notice a significant difference without the presence of bees. We would notice a decrease in our crop yields and we’d have to live without those bee products that we have come to know and love. Not to mention the fact that so many wildflowers would cease to exist and what’s a world without beautiful blooms?
It’s obvious that bees are essential pollinators but how they do this is a fascinating subject in itself. One of the most amazing things is that flowers have their own adaptations which attract bees and other pollinators. However, I’m going to talk about what attracts bees to flowers in more detail later in this post. For now, let’s take a look at how pollination occurs.
If you look in your garden or around local wildlife areas, you will see bees buzzing from flower to flower. They’re not doing this just to pass the time; their main initiative is to collect nectar which they take back to the hive and convert to honey. However, during this process, bees will also collect pollen, which sticks to their furry bodies and the pollen baskets on their back legs.
Now, bees will use pollen within the hive to make things like bee bread, a form of sustenance for their young. But they also end up transferring it from one flower to another as they move around, and this is pollination. It’ll take pollen from the male part of one plant and then transfer it to the female part, called the stigma, of another.
Bees are such hardworking little critters but it’s still hard to believe just how many flowers they will pollinate. During one flight, a single bee might pollinate as many as 100 flowers. But for most bees, they’ll find a specific type of flower that they like and will continue going back to it. The benefit of this is that one species of plant then ends up having a very high chance of successful pollination. On top of this, once a honey bee finds a reliable flower for food, it’ll perform a cute dance, known as a waggle dance, which it uses to attract other bees, further boosting pollination.
If an entire colony goes out to pollinate flowers, in a single day they could potentially pollinate as many as 20 million flowers; didn’t I tell you they were hardworking?
The world is home to more than 300,000 species of flowering plants. In order to get pollinated, these plants must be able to attract pollinators. As I’ve mentioned, some plants rely on other methods such as the wind or self-pollination but for 75% of crops and 905 of wildflowers, bees are essential.
Plants use a variety of methods to attract bees, one of the most obvious being their colors. Now, I recently wrote an article on what colors bees see and in this, you’ll discover how our winged friends are more attracted to flowers on the blue/green spectrum because of the way their eyes work. While it’s not possible for bees to see red, they may sometimes be seen on red flowers for other reasons such as scent or UV markers.
There are also some plants that bees just have a natural affinity for. I’ll talk about these in more detail in the next section but by planting these, you have a much higher chance of bees visiting your garden.
The shape and design of the flower is also important when it comes to attracting bees. For example, most bee species will be more attracted to those that have one ring of petals. The reason for this is that there is a more plentiful nectar supply compared to those with double petal rings. Amazingly, flowers within the blue and green spectrum also produce more nectar which proves that bees’ eyesight is perfectly adapted to this.
I mentioned the scent of flowers and this is something else that’ll draw a bee in. Bees don’t smell in the same way that we do because they don’t have the same nasal or olfactory structures we have. However, their antennae offer them a way to smell the world around them and this attracts them to the pollen in a flower. Even more amazing is that their antennae provide them with direction so they can detect where the smell is coming from and head directly to the flower.
In North America, there are around 800 species of native plants that require bees for pollination. This is one of the reasons that these critters are so important but then, that’s the case all over the world.
If you read any literature on suitable plants for bees then you’ll find lots of information on ‘bee-friendly’ plants which include things like raspberries, roses, mallow, and thyme, among many others. In the garden, they’re also big fans of things like fruit trees and willow.
However, this largely applies to bees that are kept by humans and, if we turn our attention to wild bees, we start to see a different pattern. There are around 600 wild bee species and each of these pollinates a very specific group of plants.
If you take the Colletes succinctus, for example, this species only pollinates heather which is why it is commonly called the small heather colletes bee. Mason bees are another common wild bee in North America and these are responsible for pollinating the viper’s bugloss. However, this does cause many people to believe that wild bees are not as important. Still, they mainly pollinate plants that honey bees do not so they’re still an essential part of your local ecosystem.
There has been a worrying decline in bee populations and the population of other pollinators. As humans, we are largely responsible for this decline but there are things we can do to reverse these changes and protect our local wildlife.
As I’ve stressed, bees are among some of the most important pollinators and they’re responsible for a huge number of crops. Without them, our food supply and that of many other animals would be at risk.
One of the most important things you can do to support local bees is to provide them with lots of flowers. You don’t need to have a garden that’s so full of blooms, there’s no room for anything else but even planting just a select few species can make a big difference, especially if we all do our part.
Something that I have been doing of late is leaving a small patch of my lawn to grow wild. This can be difficult if you’re used to having a fully manicured garden but once you start seeing the bees, it becomes worth it. Having an area like this means that lawn weeds are free to grow and these are hugely important for bees.
Bees also need a good supply of water so having even just a small water source in your garden is invaluable to them. Do keep in mind that they need somewhere to sit while they drink the water so something like a shallow bird bath or some rocks around the border of a pond are ideal.
If we are going to protect our pollinators, we need to make sure that they have a safe environment in which to thrive. This cannot be achieved if we’re spraying chemicals all over the yard so avoiding the use of chemical pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, and other products is a must. While you may be keen to get rid of certain pests in the garden, there are natural methods for this. Moreover, using things like mulch can act as an organic fertilizer and encourage excellent plant growth which also benefits the bees.
Finally, it’s important that bees have somewhere safe to nest. While honey bees will have their own hive somewhere, many solitary bees are also important pollinators and they’ll make their nests in a variety of locations. Sometimes, these locations aren’t exactly practical for humans and I’m often asked how to get rid of bumble bees or what kills carpenter bees.
I’d never recommend killing bees but by providing them with suitable nesting sites, we are protecting them and making sure that we don’t find a nest in the wooden structures in our gardens. If you find that you get a lot of ground-nesting bees, like bumble bees, in your yard then why not try installing a bumble bee box?
They’re not always well used but it’s worth the effort, especially when they’re properly placed such as in the trees where the tree bumblebee is sure to take a look around. You might also leave log piles or create a rockery in the soil where many solitary bee species would love to take up residence.
Without bees, the world would be a vastly different place. Along with many other insects and animals, they are important pollinators and the process of how bees pollinate is a truly fascinating one. It’s not something they do on purpose but is simply an accidental action that happens when they’re out foraging for food. Regardless, if they didn’t do it, a huge percentage of our crops and wild plants would struggle to survive.