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I have often heard a vague claim that bees help flowering tree populations survive.
As far as I know, bees take nectar and pollen concentrations from the flowers of flowering trees and use at least the nectar as a food source, but they don't take seeds out of these trees, so it's unclear to me how they help these trees survive in that regard.
Given that bees don't take seeds of flowering trees (and drop some when they fly) How do bees help flowering trees survive?
How does the taking of nectar and pollen away from flowering trees make bees symbiotically help such tree populations to survive and endeavor?
One of the goals of every living organism (including plants), thus it seems, is to create offspring for the next generation. This is the way plants (angiosperms) have sex.
That said; I personally define pollination as:
The act of transferring pollen grains from the male anther of a flower to the female stigma.
It should be noted that not only Bees play a very important role in pollination, but also other insects like wasps, beetles, mosquitoes etc.
When a bee sits on the flowers to collect nectar, its feet pick up pollen grains ( the powdery stuff) from the anthers and transfer it to the female stigma (which is sticky to hold the pollens).
Michigan State University:
When a bee lands on a flower, the hairs all over the bees' body attract pollen grains through electrostatic forces. Stiff hairs on their legs enable them to groom the pollen into specialized brushes or pockets on their legs or body, and then carry it back to their nest. Individual bees tend to focus on one kind of flower at a time, which means it is more likely that pollen from one flower will be transferred to another flower of the same species by a particular bee.
Then the pollen grain makes its way into the ovary of the flower through the long stalk (style) and fertilizes the egg. Then the flower matures to for a fruit and the ovules become it's seeds. It's a symbiotic relationship where the plant provides food and the bees pollinate them in turn.
Also, certain bright colouration of flowers and their sweet smell attract more insects.
A declining population of pollinating insects signal the decline of the whole ecosystem including plants and trees.
Entomologists keep a check on various insect populations. They have found a decline in the population of bees world wide! This is an alarming situation. This will cause huge damage to fruit industries including kiwifruit, watermelon, squash and many others. It's time we take the environmental issues seriously.The reports aren't vague!
Penn State College of Agricultural Science:
Historically, managed honey bee populations in the US and Europe have been monitored due to their vital role in providing pollination services in agricultural systems. Several studies indicate that American and European beekeepers are suffering large annual losses. In the US, beekeepers have lost ~30% of their colonies every year since 2006, with total annual losses sometimes reaching as high as 42%
A brochure from FAO on importance of bees as pollinators : http://www.fao.org/3/I9527EN/i9527en.PDF
Penn State College of Agricultural Science on declining population of pollinators : https://ento.psu.edu/pollinators/resources-and-outreach/globally-pollinators-are-in-decline
Wikipedia on the same issue: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pollinator_decline
Navoneel Karmakar's answer is correct -- there are many plant species for which bees are crucial or necessary pollinators because of self-incompatibility. Indeed, the disappearance of bees would lead to the collapse of these plant populations if no other mechanism of pollination (e.g. wind) was available.
But there are many plants that do not rely on insect pollination, and can self-pollinate to reproduce as well as exchange gametes by insect cross-pollination. Would the disappearance of bees (or the preferred insect pollinator) lead to reduced survival of such a plant population, by a mechanism other than drastic population collapse?
From a population genetics perspective, variation is a good thing. If a geographically isolated population of plants reproduces exclusively by pollination between genetically homogenous neighbors, the genetic diversity of that population is limited to the genes of individuals in that population (plus mutagenesis, though beneficial mutations are generally a consideration only in the long term). If a pest or pathogen is introduced to this population, and no individuals in that population carry the genetic determinants of resistance, that population will be threatened, barring some rare mutagenesis leading to resilience. Even outside the threat of disease, any isolated population is subject to inbreeding depression by propagation of deleterious alleles.
Now, introduce an insect pollinator. This organism can ferry plant gametes between geographically isolated populations, expanding the existing genetic space of each population to include the other. This pollinator is an agent of outcrossing, which combats the effects of inbreeding depression by the introduction of new alleles.
Take, for example, Chamaecrista fasciculata, a species of bee-pollinated legume. Mannouris and Byers discuss the effect of habitat fragmentation on this plant, which has led to smaller populations resulting in reduced genetic variation and increased genetic drift load, defined here:
In small populations, genetic drift is likely to play a stronger role in changes in allele frequencies than natural selection. Random loss of alleles through drift is more likely to leave behind deleterious recessive alleles than selection would do. The result is an enhanced level of genetic load in small populations due to the effects of drift, known as 'genetic drift load'.
This species can be selfed, but relies heavily on bee pollination to maintain genetic diversity.
Chamaecrista fasciculata is 80% outcrossed by bumblebee pollinators and the populations have been found to be very spatially structured due to limited seed and pollen dispersal.
Moreover, fragmentation of the prairie habitats has led to populations that are too isolated for bee cross-pollination.
All of the prairies listed as isolated on Table 1 were at least 30 km from another known prairie with C. fasciculata, which is beyond the distance bumblebee pollinators are expected to forage.
All of this to say, while C. fasciculata does not exclusively rely on bee pollination to reproduce, there is a deleterious effect of the loss of cross-population pollination evident in reduced population genetic diversity.
Bees in a colony work with each other to gather food. They try to find the most pollen and nectar in the least amount of time possible.
Finding the best flowers
Some flowers have more pollen and nectar than others. When a good flower patch is found, bees recruit other bees from their colony to the patch. But how do they tell those bees where to find the best flowers?
Bees communicate flower location using special dances inside the hive. One bee dances, while other bees watch to learn the directions to a specific flower patch. The dancing bee smells like the flower patch, and also gives the watching bees a taste of the nectar she gathered. Smell and taste helps other bees find the correct flower patch.
Bees use two different kinds of dances to communicate information: the waggle dance and the circle dance. Read more about the two different dances below.
10 Ways to Save the Bees
One of the largest threats to bees is a lack of safe habitat where they can build homes and find a variety of nutritious food sources. By planting a bee garden, you can create a habitat corridor with plants that are rich in pollen and nectar. You don’t need a ton of space to grow bee-friendly plants — gardens can be established across yards and in window boxes, flower pots, and planters. You can also get involved with local organizations and governments to find opportunities to enrich public and shared spaces.
2. Go Chemical-Free for Bees
Synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, and neonicotinoids are harmful to bees, wreaking havoc on their sensitive systems. Avoid treating your garden and green spaces with synthetics. Instead, use organic products and natural solutions such compost to aid soil health and adding beneficial insects that keep pests away like ladybugs and praying mantises.
3. Become a Citizen Scientist
Join a global movement to collect data on our favorite pollinators! Gather photos and other information about native bees and upload them to the iNaturalist app. Make it a group activity for friends by hosting a BeeBlitz event! Together, we can learn about the bees in various sites and cities and identify opportunities for nurturing them.
4. Provide Trees for Bees
Did you know that bees get most of their nectar from trees? When a tree blooms, it provides hundreds — if not thousands — of blossoms to feed from. Trees are not only a great food source for bees, but also an essential habitat. Tree leaves and resin provide nesting material for bees, while natural wood cavities make excellent shelters. With deforestation and development on the rise, you can help bolster bee habitats by caring for trees and joining tree-planting parties in your area.
5. Create a Bee Bath
Bees work up quite a thirst foraging and collecting nectar. Fill a shallow bird bath or bowl with clean water, and arrange pebbles and stones inside so that they break the water’s surface. Bees will land on the stones and pebbles to take a long, refreshing drink.
6. Build Homes for Native Bees
Did you know that, with the exception of honeybees, most bees are solitary creatures? 70% of solitary bees live underground, while 30% live in holes inside of trees or hollow stems. Species like bumble bees build their nests in undisturbed land, and you can provide safe haven for them by leaving an untouched plot of land for them in your garden! “Bee condos” — which have small tube “apartments” — allow species like mason bees to take up residence. They’re easy to make or purchase. Our Sponsor-a-Hive program places solitary bee homes in gardens, schools, and communities around the U.S. and Canada.
7. Give Beehives and Native Bee Homes
Keep honeybees, nurture native bees, or help gardens and schools around the U.S. and Canada grow food and strengthen local environments. Our Sponsor-a-Hive program creates safe havens for precious pollinators in underserved communities by supplying the tools, gear, and education needed to successfully home bees. Donate to our program or apply to receive a home for your group or organization.
8. Teach Tomorrow’s Bee Stewards
Inspire the next generation of eco citizens with guides, lessons, and activities to get them buzzed about bees! Educators can use our collection of free resources to bring nature and ecology into the classroom — and the hearts of children everywhere.
9. Host a Fundraiser
Host a fundraiser online or do something you love to help #BeeTheSolution. Your #BeeTheSolution fundraising events create community building and information sharing opportunities that inspire while raising funds for The Bee Conservancy programs. It’s an easy, fun way to make a serious impact.
10. Support Local Beekeepers and Organizations
Local beekeepers work hard to nurture their bees and the local community. The easiest way to show your appreciation is to buy locally-made honey and beeswax products. Many beekeepers use products from their hives to create soaps, lotions, and beeswax candles. Plus, local honey is not only delicious — it is made from local flora and may help with seasonal allergies! You can also give time, resources, and monetary donations to local beekeeping societies and environmental groups to help their programs grow.
The Bee Conservancy, formerly The Honeybee Conservancy, is a nonprofit organization established in 2009 in response to the bee crisis. We are a Project of Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs.
The Bee Conservancy
1732 1st Ave #28748
New York, NY 10128
In the News
How do bees help flowering trees survive? - Biology
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U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE
Pollinating Insect-Biology, Management, Systematics Research: Logan, UT
In recent years, the blue orchard bee (BOB) has become established as an alternative orchard pollinator in North America. With a strong preference for fruit trees, BOBs are highly efficient pollinators in fact, just 250-300 females will pollinate an entire acre of apples or cherries. BOBs forage and pollinate under cloudy skies and at lower temperatures than most other bees. They are easy to manage and rarely sting.
Cherries being harvested from an orchard pollinated by blue orchard bees.
How To Distinguish Blue Orchard Bee Nests From Those Of Other Wild Bees
The blue orchard bee (BOB), Osmia lignaria, is increasingly sought by people who are commercially trap-nesting wild bees in the western USA. Dozens of other native bees, including other Osmia species, may be inadvertently obtained, particularly if the nest tubes are left out during the summer. Timely pick-up by late spring will avoid many of these unwanted species, especially prevalent summer bees such as Megachile.
When recovering blocks/reeds/tubes from the field, initially all one sees are the end caps of the nests, which for some species may be recessed. With practice and a hand lens, the probable identity of the nest can be learned from the nature of the cap itself, or certainly what the occupant is not, based on the material(s) constituting the cap and its surface texture. Most species of cavity-nesting Osmia make closures from leaf pulp (mastic), including the earliest spring nester, Osmia ribifloris .
It is ultimately important to sort by-catch from BOB, both for quality control and also to avoid shipping other species out of their native ranges The by-catch should be returned to the wild, but several hundred yards from where nest blocks will be placed the following year.
Below is a visual guide to some of the common or more recognizable nest caps one is likely to encounter when trap-nesting BOBs, particularly in northern Utah.
A printable PDF version of this Nest Plug information is available.
These bees do have their own pests and diseases, however, nest materials and management techniques are available to deter or remove many of these from the bees nesting in an orchard.
Examples of pests include:
The adult checkered flower beetle (Trichodes ornatus) is very colorful, and females lay their eggs in bee nests. The larvae prey on the developing bee brood, and eat the pollen provisions. The larvae have a somewhat worm-like appearance and a red color.
Blister beetles (Tricrania stansburyi) lay their eggs in flowers, and when the eggs hatch, the new larvae wait for a bee to come and visit, then hop a ride to the bee's nest. In this way, the beetle larvae finds its way into a sealed nest cell, where it kills the bee egg and feeds on the pollen provision. Only one blister beetle develops in one bee cell.
Flour beetles (Tribolium spp.) lay their eggs in the nests, and the larvae feed on the pollen provisions. They typically do not harm the bees directly.
Carpet beetles, such as this larva, commonly scavenge in bee nests. Carpet beetles belong to the Family Dermestidae.
- Some wasps are parasites of the developing bee larvae. Typically the tiny female wasp enters the nest through cracks and crevices, then locates a developing bee larvae and lays her eggs. Infested cells can be identified by a large number of very small larvae in a cell, rather than the typical single large larva per cell of the blue orchard bee. Assuring that the backs of the nest cavities are sealed tightly, such that the wasps cannot enter through the back of the straw, will help reduce parasite infestations. Some of the parasites include the Chalcidae wasps:
And the beautiful metallic green Chrysididae wasp, Chrysura
- Other parasites lay their eggs in the nests, and are called "cleptoparasites." Cleptoparasites kill the immature blue orchard bee and eat all their food. Sometimes other solitary bees can be cleptoparasites, too.
Sapyga are cleptoparasitic wasps of the blue orchard bee.
Stelis is a bee that is a cleptoparasite. It is also called the cuckoo bee. Its looks are similar to the blue orchard bee, but it is smaller, and the fecal pellets are long and curly, allowing one to identify it in the nest.
- Pollen mites, also called hairy fingered mites (Chaetodactylus krombeini) can also be cleptoparasites. Heavy infestations can starve out the developing brood. The mites cannot move between the mud partitions in a nest, unless the partition is damaged during when the nests are moved.
Pollen mites infesting a blue orchard bee cell.
- Chalkbrood. Very little is known about the diseases of blue orchard bees, but the most common disease is chalkbrood, caused by fungi in the genus Ascosphaera. The biology of chalkbrood in the blue orchard bee is very similar to chalkbrood in the alfalfa leafcutting bee.
Using Blue Orchard Bees on Almonds:
The cost of renting honey bee hives for almond pollination service was about $50 per hive in 2003, but in 2009, the cost had increased to about $150-170 per hive. Between 2003 and 2005, the hive rental costs increased three-fold. This increase was due to a shortage of bees caused, on one hand, by declines in honey bee colonies due to varroa mites and colony disorder, and on the other hand, to rapid increases in almond acreage. The price of honey bee colonies is expected to level off at current prices as the markets come into balance.
California's 2005 almond acreage was estimated at 680,000 acres, a 6 percent increase from 2004's acreage of 640,000. Bearing acreage is forecasted to be over 800,000 by 2012 (USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service). Almond growers typically use 2-3 colonies per acre, and at this rate, they require about 65% of all the honey bee colonies currently on record in the U.S.!
Blue Orchard bees are a good supplement or alternative to honey bees for almond pollinations. They are becoming commercially available for almond producers, although currently on a smaller scale than honey bees. Our laboratory has been working on developing blue orchard bee pollination systems for 20 years.
Using Blue Orchard Bees on other orchard crops:
While the cost of honey bee hives for other orchard crops is not as high as for almond, blue orchard bees are still a good supplement and help diversify the pollinator pool for these crops as well.
A good fit -
- Almond, cherry, pear, and apple trees bloom early, often during bad weather BOBs forage in cool weather,
Management of the Blue Orchard Bee (BOB) is quite different than for honey bees. BOBs have one generation per year and each female has her own nest.
For IDEAL pollination with Blue Orchard Bees
- Provide appropriate Fall-to-Spring temperaturesfor synchronous, early emergence of healthy females
- Provide appropriate nesting materialsattractive to female BOBs
- Provide appropriate shelters
Additional measures ideal for all pollinators
- During bloom, spray pesticides in eveningor at night (when bees are not flying) with clean tanks and non-toxic fungicides
- Extend bloom(bee forage), use these bees in orchards with several almond varieties, other tree fruits and/or early-blooming annual cover crops
The commercially available bees (still in cocoons) need to be adults for 30 days before cooling (Fall). Then at least 180 days at or below 45 o F (Winter) in order to emerge 1-7 days after warming (72-78 o F)(Spring).
Nest material should: have holes about 5/16" in diameter (ideally, 19/64") be about 6" long be 3/4" apart (although, if hole entrances are offset, they can be closer) be plugged at the back to seal against light and parasites be thick enough to block light and parasitism by wasps should be lightweight and economical (although avoid plastic, it leads to mold) placed close to release site. For more information on building a nesting board, view our instructions.
Shelters should: be open face Southeast provide protection from direct mid-day sunlight be protected from rain provide some morning solar warming in areas where temperatures are marginal for bloom and flight ideally be spaced at 1 per acre be large enough to provide 2-4 holes per female released ideally be placed within orchard (in years of limited flight time, shorter flight distance restricts pollination to nearby trees) be small enough to be out of the way of spray rigs.
Further information on using BOBs can be found in our 2001 publication "How to manage the blue orchard bee as an orchard pollinator." This book is currently out of print, but available in pdf format.
Why do we need bees?
We need bees. We may take them and other pollinators like butterflies and hoverflies for granted, but they're vital to stable, healthy food supplies and key to the varied, colourful and nutritious diets we need (and have come to expect).
Bees are perfectly adapted to pollinate, helping plants grow, breed and produce food. They do so by transferring pollen between flowering plants and therefore keeping the cycle of life turning.
The vast majority of plants we need for food rely on pollination, especially by bees: from almonds and vanilla to apples and squash. Bees also pollinate around 80% of wildflowers in Europe, so our countryside would be far less interesting and beautiful without them.
But bees are in trouble. There's growing public and political concern at bee decline across the world. This decline is caused by a combination of stresses – from loss of habitat and food sources to exposure to pesticides and the effects of climate breakdown.
More than ever before, we need to recognise the importance of bees to nature and to our lives. And we need to turn that into action to ensure they don't just survive but thrive.
Types of bee
Not all bees are the same. There are over 20,000 known species of bee globally. Around 270 species of bee have been recorded in the UK. Only 1 of these is the famous Honeybee.
Most Honeybees are kept by beekeepers in colonies of managed hives. The rest of our bees are wild, including 25 bumblebee species and more than 220 types of solitary bee.
Like Honeybees, the familiar Bumblebees live in social colonies - usually in holes in the ground or tree cavities.
Solitary bees tend to nest on their own, as the name suggests. Each female builds and provisions her own nest with food. Solitary bees include Mining bees which nest in the ground, as well as Mason bees and Leafcutter bees that nest in holes in dead wood, banks and walls.
Bees = perfect pollinators
Thanks to bees we can enjoy a range of foods from apples and pears to coffee and vanilla. And if you are wearing cotton, that's because the cotton plant your threads came from was pollinated.
"More than 90% of the leading global crop types are visited by bees."
Bees gather pollen to stock their nests as food for their young. They have special features to collect it - like branched hairs called 'scopae' or combs of bristles called pollen baskets on their legs. As bees visit plants seeking food, pollen catches on their bodies and passes between plants, fertilising them – that's pollination.
Bees are not the world's only pollinators. Flies, wasps, moths, beetles and even some birds, bats and lizards all pollinate, but they only visit flowers enough to feed themselves. Because they gather pollen to stock their nests, bees are generally the most effective pollinators since they visit many more flowers and carry more pollen between them.
Some bee species are also specially developed to pollinate particular plants and without them those plants would be less well-pollinated.
Garden bumblebee sipping teasel © Rory Dimond
Bees and farmers
Many bees have different characteristics that make them suited to pollinate certain plants. For example, the Early bumblebee's small size and agility allow it to enter plants with drooping flowers such as comfrey. Garden bumblebees are better at pollinating the deep flowers of honeysuckle and foxgloves than most other species because their longer tongue can reach deep inside them.
Many farmers rely on a diversity of bees to pollinate their produce. For example, commercial apple growers benefit from the free pollination services of the Red mason bee. This species can be 120 times more efficient at pollinating apple blossoms than honeybees.
There is evidence that natural pollination by the right type of bee improves the quality of the crop - from its nutritional value to its shelf life. For example, bumblebees and solitary bees feed from different parts of strawberry flowers. In combination they produce bigger, juicier and more evenly-shaped strawberries.
Some bee species have an affinity to particular plants, so need particular natural habitats. For example, in the UK the scabious bee, our largest mining bee, needs the pollen of field scabious or small scabious to provision its young. These plants grow on sandy or chalky open grassland, an important habitat for a variety of bees and wildflowers that is under threat from changing land use. The loss of particular habitats like this is the main driver of bee decline.
Red mason bee on apple blossom © Sweetaholic/390 Images
Bees are important for more than honey
In a world without bees we would probably survive. But our existence would be more precarious and our diets would be dull, poorer and less nutritious. And not just for want of honey.
Even some plants grown to feed to livestock for meat production, such as clover and alfalfa, depend at least partly on bee pollination.
"Loss of pollinators could lead to lower availability of crops and wild plants that provide essential micro-nutrients for human diets, impacting health and nutritional security and risking increased numbers of people suffering from vitamin A, iron and folate deficiency."
Governments and food producers talk a lot about food security, yet without bees our food supply would be insecure. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) identified encouraging pollinators - particularly bees - as one of the best sustainable ways to boost food security and support sustainable farming.
All this natural crop pollination fills pockets as well as our bellies. The global market value linked to pollinators is between US$235bn and US$557bn each year. In the UK alone, the services of bees and other pollinators are worth £691m a year, in terms of the value of the crops they pollinate. It would cost the UK at least £1.8bn a year to employ people to do the work of these pollinators, yet bees do it for free.
Bees are important to a healthy environment
Bees are a fantastic symbol of nature. That they are in trouble is a sign that our natural environment is not in the good shape it should be.
By keeping the cycle of life turning, bees boost the colour and beauty of our countryside. Some 80% of European wildflowers require insect pollination. Many of them such as foxglove, clovers and vetches rely on bees.
Pollinators allow plants to fruit, set seed and breed. This in turn provides food and habitat for a range of other creatures. So the health of our natural ecosystems is fundamentally linked to the health of our bees and other pollinators.
Maintaining our native flora also depends on healthy pollinator populations. This includes wild flowers such as poppies, cornflowers and bluebells, as well as trees and shrubs. The close relationship between pollinators and the plants they pollinate is evident in the parallel declines seen across the UK and Europe: 76% of plants preferred by bumblebees have declined in recent decades, with 71% seeing contractions in their geographical range.
Donate today and get everything you need to create a haven for bees and pollinating insects.
How Do Bees Pollinate Flowers?
Bees play a critical role in the life cycle of plants by pollinating them. Michigan State University explains that pollination occurs when pollen from the male part of the plant fertilizes the female part of the plant. Bees pollinate plants by landing on the flowers, picking up pollen and then transferring it to other plants of the same species while they collect nectar.
Land on flowers
Bees start pollinating plants by landing on flowers. Flowers are made specifically to attract pollinators with bright colors, sweet aromas and petals that create a landing platform. Flowers even give bees nectar, which they use to make honey, as motivation to visit.
Pick up pollen
Once bees land on flowers, they pick up pollen with the hairs on their bodies. They also use electrostatic forces to keep the pollen grains sticking to their bodies. They then brush the pollen from their bodies into specialized sacks.
Because bees gather nectar and pollen from one species of plant at a time, pollen gets transferred from flower to flower. This cross-pollination allows male pollen to be carried to the female parts of flowers for reproduction. In some species cross-pollination is necessary for reproduction and the production of seeds.
How do flowers attract bees for pollination?
To comprehend this better we need to recognise that not all plants are necessarily trying to attract honey bees. There is more than one way that pollination can occur.
About 12% of plants with flowers don’t actually require pollination from anything else but the wind. These plants rely solely on the wind to blow pollen from the flower and deposit it on another flower in order for fertilization to occur.
Interestingly, these plants often have dull flowers and very little scent. Some aquatic plants rely on water to transfer pollen in order to be pollinated.
The incredible South East Asian flower the Rafflesia is different again and challenges what we stereotypically think of a flower. The Rafflesia flower is the largest in the world, growing up to a staggering 100cm (39.4 inches) in diameter and weighing up to 10kg (22lb). This flower is in no way trying to attract honey bees and you certainly won’t see it in a floral bouquet at your local florist.
Check out this picture of one. They look cool but maybe not so nice on the nostrils.
Shockingly it looks and smells like rotting flesh. The Rafflesia flower attracts flies which fly from flower to flower looking to lay eggs and in turn distributing pollen amongst the flowers resulting in pollination.
The remaining 70% to 80% of flowers require pollination by insects, making the honey bee the true super heros. Not only are they unbelievably efficient at collecting and distributing pollen as the move from flower to flower, they are also like heat seeking missiles when it comes to locating and targeting flowers to pollinate. On top of this they are team players and can very accurately communicate the location of the flowers to other bees from their hive. It is not uncommon to see large flowering trees with literally thousands of bees collectively gathering pollen and nectar.
The color of the flower can be a distinct enticement to certain types of pollinators. Typically birds are attracted to bright colors, commonly those with red and yellow flowers.
More often than not, honey bees are attracted to shades of blue, white, and yellow flowers.
Some plants even have a secret weapon for attracting honey bees. The flowers on these plants have unique markings that absorb and reflect ultraviolet light. Bees can spot the ultraviolet light like a beacon attracting them to the sweet nectar inside the flower.
The image below is what a white Gerbera like under ultraviolet light.
For most pollinators the common prize they are all seeking is the nectar inside the flower. Honey bees have a strikingly acute sense of smell with a staggering 170 odor receptors located in their antennae. The odor receptors have the ability to zero in on a target scent allowing the bees to not only distinguish the type of flower they want but the direction the flower is in. They can do all of this mid flight, making bees dynamically efficient in finding nectar and pollen.
The scent of the nectar usually comes from deep within the flower. The flowers anthers and stigmas are positioned in such a way that as the bee climbs into the flower they brush past these vital parts. This process will not only collect pollen but drop pollen from the small hairs on their bodies, in turn pollinating the plant.
It is usual that there is enough nectar for countless bees ensuring a high probability of effective pollination of the flower. Interestingly birds typically have a poor sense of smell meaning the sweet scent of nectar is not the primary attraction for them, it is in fact the colour.
The shape of a flower can not only influence how pollination occurs but also the types of pollinators it attracts. For example, long tubular flowers where the nectar is located deep within the flower are ideal for nectar eating birds from the Meliphagidae family. These birds are able to submerge their beaks into the flower.
Large open flowers such as sunflowers have a large, exposed circumference making way for a multitude of bees to collectively gather nectar and pollen at the same time.
It’s common practice for farmers of sunflowers to contract beekeepers to bring in hives as a safeguard ensuring big plantations of sunflowers are suitably pollinated.
Pea shaped flowers typically have a top petal called a banner, two bottom petals called a keel and side petals called wings. When the bees enter into the middle of the flower her weight on the keel petals causes the anthers and stigma brush against the bee’s body promoting the transfer of pollen both ways via the hair on the bee’s body.
All organisms (living things) have adaptations, or unique physical structures (how they look) and behaviors (how they act) that help them get food, protect themselves, communicate with other animals in their ecosystem, and reproduce. Pollinators have special adaptations that help them get nectar from flowers and move pollen from flower to flower. If the pollinator's habitat changes, has a choice—it can adapt (adjust) to the changes and stay in its habitat, leave and find another habitat, or die.
On this page we'll EXPLORE the unique adaptations of each pollinator group. Understanding adaptations can help you help your pollinator species. Find your species' pollinator group, read about its unique adaptations, and respond to the Questions to Consider.
Butterflies & Skippers
Butterflies & Skippers
The wings of different species of butterflies and skippers have dramatically different colors and patterns. Some are colorful, some are dull, and some are different patterns. These colors and patterns are adaptations that have helped that butterfly species survive! They help butterflies hide from predators, trick predators into thinking they are poisonous or that they are a much bigger animal, and help them maintain their body temperature.
Questions to Consider
- What adaptations does your butterfly or skipper species have and how do these adaptations help them survive and thrive?
- How does understanding your species' physical and behavioral adaptations help you help them?
Like butterflies and skippers, the wings of moths also tell an interesting story about what they need to survive and thrive. Not only have moth wings adapted to make them very good fliers, but their coloring is often important to helping them camouflage themselves so they can avoid being eaten by predators. Some species look like leaves or bark. Others have big spots that look like eyes of much larger creatures.
Some species can adapt quickly to changing conditions, such as the species in this picture who became darker as the lichens on the trees where they lived died from pollution.
Questions to Consider
- What adaptations does your moth species have and how do these adaptations help them survive and thrive?
- How does understanding your species' physical and behavioral adaptations help you help them?
Many of the hummingbird's special traits and adaptations have developed to help it consume and conserve energy. Its long narrow beak and tongue are specially designed to help it drink nectar from the long tubular flowers it likes most. The feet of the hummingbird are tiny, really only strong enough to perch on branches, which helps make them lighter. Finally, when they sleep, their organs can all slow down to conserve energy.
Questions to Consider
- What adaptations does your hummingbird species have and how do these adaptations help them survive and thrive?
- How does understanding your species' physical and behavioral adaptations help you help them?
As the only known flying mammal, bats have adapted all kinds of interesting traits to help them survive and thrive. As we discussed in the Structure and Function section, the unique wing structure of the bat helps make it a very nimble and quick flier. Pollinating bats also tend to have long noses, and very long tongues that help them reach deep into the flowering cactus and drink up the nectar. These mammals are nocturnal, which helps them avoid competition from other pollinating animals that are awake during the day. Bats have very sensitive, large ears that help them navigate around in the dark. Have you ever been in a place where you could make sound echo off the walls or surfaces around you? Bats are very good at using these sounds to figure out where they are in the dark (a process known as echolocation).
Questions to Consider
- What adaptations does your bat species have and how do these adaptations help them survive and thrive?
- How does understanding your species' physical and behavioral adaptations help you help them?
Bees have a number of specialized adaptations that help them to be great pollinators. They have hairs all over their body that can sense when flowers are nearby, and pick up pollen as they visit each flower. On their hind legs, bees have special hairs that are arranged to form pollen ‘baskets,’ which they can use to store the pollen they've already picked up. These traits allow them to carry large amounts of pollen and visit many different flowers before returning to their nest.
Bees mating on a desert marigold.
The first “trick” is to go to natural places when plants are in flower and so could be providing food for mother bees to supply to their grubby offspring. Many bees mate directly on the flowers that females visit. This could be a good place to begin. I recently did this when inspecting desert marigolds. If you can find a species whose males find females at the flowering foodplant you could use this as your observation point.
In the case of Centris pallida, the palo verdes and ironwoods often bloom profusely in May, offering billions of nectar and pollen-containing flowers to their pollinators, of which the digger bee is one. I happened to visit the Blue Point Bridge area on the Salt River below Saguaro Lake near Phoenix, Arizona at the right time in the early 1970s. When I saw all sorts of gray bees flying low over the ground, I decided to see what they were doing.
Blooms on ‘chocolate’ tree are crazy-hard to pollinate
The seeds that give the world chocolate come from coy, fussy flowers that make pollination very difficult.
February 8, 2018 at 9:50 am
It’s a wonder chocolate exists. Talk about plants that resist help. Cacao trees provide the seeds from which chocolate is made. But those seeds develop only once the trees’ blooms have been pollinated. The trees’ fruit — known as pods — are created by dime-sized flowers. And those blooms are difficult. They make pollination barely possible.
Growers of other commercial fruits expect 50 to 60 percent of the flowers on their crop plant to make seeds, notes Emily Kearney. And some cacao trees manage those rates. Kearney knows. She works at the University of California, Berkeley. A biologist there, she focuses on the pollination of cacao. The problem: Pollination rates in these plants tends to be much lower — as in closer to 15 to 30 percent. But in the South American country of Ecuador, traditional plantings may contain a mix of species. There, Kearney has seen cacao pollination rates of just 3 to 5 percent.
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The first sight of a blooming cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) can be “disconcerting,” she says. That’s because flowers don’t sprout from branches as in many other trees. Instead, they emerge directly from the trunk. They burst into little pink-and-white constellations of five-pointed starry blooms. Some trunks, Kearney says, “are completely covered with flowers.”
Pretty as they are, these flowers make nothing easy. Each petal curves into a tiny hood. This hood fits down around the plant’s male, pollen-making structure. To reach that pollen, a honeybee would be a useless giant blimp. So tiny flies step up to the task. Each of them is little bigger than a poppy seed. Known as chocolate midges, they are part of a family called biting midges.
After crawling up into the flowers’ hoods, they do — something.
But what? The flower offers those midges no nectar to drink. So far, researchers haven’t even shown that some scent lures in the midges. Some biologists have mused that reddish parts of the flower offer nutritious nibbling for the bugs. But Kearney knows of no tests that have confirmed this.
Another hitch to pollination: One cacao pod (resembling a wrinkled, swollen cucumber in shades of brown, purple or orange) requires from 100 to 250 grains of pollen to fertilize its 40 to 60 seeds. Yet midges typically emerge from a flower hood speckled with just a few to maybe 30 grains of the sticky white pollen. (Kearney says those pollen grains look like “clumpy sugar.”)
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Pods, here, from Theobroma cacao trees are plump (with dozens of seeds) and vary a lot in color. E. Kearney
What’s more, the midge can’t just hike over to the female part of the same bloom. The female part sticks up in the very center of the flower, like some white-bristled paintbrush. Yet pollen is useless for any blooms on the tree it came from. That pollen won’t even work for close relatives.
To better understand cacao pollination, Kearney doesn’t suggest looking for answers at cacao farms. She says, “I think it’s the wild individuals that are going to open up the field.”
These trees evolved mostly in the Amazon Basin. There, cacao trees often grow in clusters of siblings that a monkey might have accidentally planted (while sucking pulp from a pod, dropping seeds as it fed).
To Kearney, dot-sized midges seem unlikely to fly the distance from clusters of cacao siblings to unrelated trees where cross-pollination chances would be better. So she wonders: Could the cacao with its elaborate reproductive system have a stealth, strong-flying native pollinator species that has to date escaped scientists’ notice?
basin (in geology) A low-lying area, often below sea level. It collects water, which then deposits fine silt and other sediment on its bottom. Because it collects these materials, it&rsquos sometimes referred to as a catchment or a drainage basin.
biology The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.
bloom A flower. Or the term for the emergence of flowers.
bug The slang term for an insect.
cacao The name of a tropical tree and of the tree&rsquos seeds (from which chocolate is made).
commercial (in research and economics) An adjective for something that is ready for sale or already being sold. Commercial goods are those caught or produced for others, and not solely for personal consumption.
constellation Patterns formed by prominent stars that lie close to each other in the night sky. Or something that has some starlike pattern.
crop (in agriculture) A type of plant grown intentionally grown and nurtured by farmers, such as corn, coffee or tomatoes. Or the term could apply to the part of the plant harvested and sold by farmers.
develop (in biology) To grow as an organism from conception through adulthood, often undergoing changes in chemistry, size and sometimes even shape.
fertilize (in biology) The merging of a male and a female reproductive cell (egg and sperm) to set in create a new, independent organism.
field An area of study, as in: Her field of research was biology. Also a term to describe a real-world environment in which some research is conducted, such as at sea, in a forest, on a mountaintop or on a city street. It is the opposite of an artificial setting, such as a research laboratory.
fruit A seed-containing reproductive organ in a plant.
insect A type of arthropod that as an adult will have six segmented legs and three body parts: a head, thorax and abdomen. There are hundreds of thousands of insects, which include bees, beetles, flies and moths.
midges Any of many types of small flies that often live around water. Some are blood-sucking insects others can derive their energy from eating plants. Frequently mistaken for mosquitoes, midges can transmit disease or move pollutants through an ecosystem.
native Associated with a particular location native plants and animals have been found in a particular location since recorded history began. These species also tend to have developed within a region, occurring there naturally (not because they were planted or moved there by people). Most are particularly well adapted to their environment.
nectar A sugary fluid secreted by plants, especially by flowers. It encourages pollination by insects and other animals. It is collected by bees to make into honey.
pollen Powdery grains released by the male parts of flowers that can fertilize the female tissue in other flowers. Pollinating insects, such as bees, often pick up pollen that will later be eaten.
pollinator Something that carries pollen, a plant&rsquos male reproductive cells, to the female parts of a flower, allowing fertilization. Many pollinators are insects such as bees.
pulp The fibrous inner part of a vegetable or fruit (such as an orange).
sibling An offspring that shares the same parents (with its brother or sister).
species A group of similar organisms capable of producing offspring that can survive and reproduce.
Website. U.S. National Park Service. Pollinators &mdash Chocolate midge.
About Susan Milius
Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.
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