What is pollination and why are bees so important?
What have you eaten today? Chances are at least part of what was on your plate exists thanks to bees – and we’re not just talking honey. Put yourself in a bee’s shoes and read on to find out about the secrets of pollination and why bees and other pollinators are so important.
A day in the life of a honey bee
Imagine a single honey bee. Let’s call her Beatrice (Bea for short).
When Bea starts her day, her house is already a-buzz. Some of her sisters are taking care of their soon-to-be-born siblings. Others, like her, are heading out to look for nectar. Meanwhile, her male roommates are taking it easy while they wait around for a new queen to emerge in neighboring hives.
Flowers through the (three) eyes of a bee
Bea flies out the door, making a bee-line for anything purple. Purple usually means a flower that’s high in sweet, sweet nectar. She loves violet, blue, yellow, and colors in the ultraviolet range as well. She doesn’t mind that she can’t see red (actually, she doesn’t really know what she’s missing), but flowers know her tastes; they unfurl their most beautiful, brightest colors to attract her attention and create ultraviolet bull’s eye patterns that are the UV equivalent of a sign saying “Land here!”. Humans can’t see these ultraviolet patterns, but bees can.
From flower to flower
Bea spends her day tirelessly buzzing from flower to flower, interspersed with trips back to the hive to drop off nectar. As a family bread-winner, you might think she’d resent her lazy brothers, but she’s pretty focused on her task (plus, she gets to taste sweet nectar all day long). As she buzzes from flower to flower, she is mostly unaware of the pollen building upon her hairy legs. She also doesn’t notice that she’s dropping a little of that pollen on all the flowers she visits.
Pollination: essential to our food production
And that’s basically pollination… minus the family drama! Not all plants need to be pollinated, but most do, from almonds to eggplants to garlic (not to mention coffee and chocolate!). Pollinators are responsible for about a third of all the food humans consume.
Wondering how pollination actually works? Here’s how – for the biology lovers out there!
If you want to produce fruit, you need a plant’s female parts to interact with male parts of the same plant or species – that’s right, flowers have male and female anatomy too! But the interaction of these different parts of a flower usually requires assistance. (As it does in pretty much any, erm, reproductive endeavor.)
Pollination happens when pollinators, like bees, take the sticky, powdery pollen from a flower’s anther, located at the tip of the stamen (which is the male part of the flower), and deposit it on another flower’s stigma, the receptive surface of the female part of the flower, called the pistil (which looks a bit like the spout of a narrow vase and is located at the center of the blossom).
When the pollen germinates, a tube grows down the vase-like pistil, allowing sperm cells to reach an ovule at the bottom. There, a sperm cell fuses with an egg cell to create an embryo (sound familiar?), the embryo becomes a seed, and the ovary grows into a protective (and tasty!) fruit around the seed. Mmm… blackberries.
Pollinators: tiny, invisible farmworkers
But bees aren’t the only pollinators. Hummingbirds, wasps, beetles, bats, butterflies, and moths are all pollinators, as well as different kinds of bees, from honey bees to bumblebees, mason bees, leafcutter bees, and hundreds more.
So – if most plants need to be pollinated to bear fruit, then, needless to say, the more pollinators, the better.
This means all farms need pollinators. Farms that are mindful of diversifying their crops by planting wildflowers alongside their flowering food crops can provide a bounty of nectar for wild bees and other pollinators. Producers who don’t make an effort to diversify their crops and provide ample food for bees often have to rely on “migratory” honey bee hives that are moved from farm to farm by their beekeeper, often causing severe stress to the colonies.
Monocultures are food deserts for our beloved pollinators
Think massive fields of nothing but almonds or blueberries: these are what are called monocultures. These farms are hostile to pollinators because of various factors, namely pesticide use, and habitat loss, and require honey bees to be trucked in for pollination.
A giant blueberry field, for example, will have lots of pollen at certain points of the year and absolutely nothing for the rest and because of its size, there are often more flowers to pollinate while the trees are in bloom than wild pollinators can handle, creating an imbalance in the ecosystem, and resulting in the need to rely on migratory honey bee hives.
Although it’s not a sustainable way of operating, many producers are forced to use migratory honey bee colonies in their agricultural practices, in an effort to keep up with today’s current and dominant monoculture practices.
What’s the problem with pollinator populations?
Across the world, we observe increased evidence that pollinating animals are getting decimated due to loss of habitat, pesticides, the introduction of invasive plant and animal species, diseases, and parasites.
Today, a large percentage of pollinators are facing endangerment.
North America has lost over 50% of its managed honey bee colonies over the last decade.
Why we all need to fall in love with pollination and all pollinators
Wild bees can’t be domesticated, but honey bees can. In an urban setting, urban beekeeping can be a way to encourage people to think about planting pollinator-friendly plants and flowers and expand their view of the environment, taking into account all the tiny creatures with whom we share our world. The docile Italian bees that we use at Alvéole are excellent ambassadors for the thousands of other bee species worldwide.
At Alvéole, we want to make people fall in love with all bees – to help them understand the importance and impact of bees on our food and ecosystems.
Curious to learn more?
If you’d like to learn more about Alvéole’s educational activities and conferences, book a demo with one of our urban beekeeping specialists.