Some flowers are built like little bee bottles, forcing the bee to move through pollen to get at the nectar rewards.
Photo by Brian M Collins
I love bees. It isn’t because I find them valuable pollinators. It isn’t even the sweet taste of honey that courts my affection. I love bees because, at the age of 15, somebody taught me how to pet bumblebees (after asking to be sure I wasn’t allergic to the sting, of course). We patted their fuzzy little bodies and admired the variety of sizes and colors. These placid, preoccupied bees were far less frightening than their ominous warning colors and that infamous, buzzing drone would suggest.
Bees are the placid version of their aggressive relatives, the wasps. While wasps may wield their stings repeatedly and even enthusiastically, bees are more docile. The sting of a honeybee is an act of altruistic valor. As the barbed stinger remains in the would-be attacker, it disembowels the bee. In saving the colony, the bee will enjoy only posthumous honor.
Smarter Than the Average Bug
Bees are amazing in their ability to perceive. In addition to the ability to see into the ultraviolet light spectrum, they are also able to learn foraging flight paths by watching the dance-like display of a returning co-worker.
Bees are capable of other types of learning too. Some bees have learned to cheat flowers of their nectar, biting the flower instead of negotiating the flower’s elaborate nectar tube. Once the behavior is performed successfully, the happily schooled bee will repeat the behavior. For their tiny brains, bees have remarkably dense clusters of neurons and are smart for their size.
The beauty of bees is most commonly reflected in the delicate, delectable gold we call honey. Honey’s remarkable variety in flavor is a result of the nectars collected by foraging honeybees, be they the luxuriously fragrant blossoms of the basswood tree or the pink and white flowers of clover from a nearby hay field.
Not to ruin a good thing, but the sweet honey we enjoy results from a process by which a worker bee returns to the colony with a gut full of nectar. Other worker bees drink a regurgitated meal of this nectar, hold it long enough to add powerful enzymes and then regurgitate it again. This time, the new and improved nectar is smeared around the honeycomb where it dries and thickens.
Bees make honey to feed their young, to survive winter and to metabolize bees’ wax in constructing the hive. It is a worker’s life of constant toil, especially when you consider that one bee will produce just 1/12 teaspoon of honey in its lifetime.
Honey contains hydrogen peroxide and has a natural tendency to fight bacteria – hence an incredibly long shelf life. It has been used to dress wounds and even embalm bodies. More commonly, it is used to treat sore throats and upset stomachs. Also, it can be used to replace sugar in just about any recipe used at ½ the quantity of sugar called for.
Bees are the real stars of terrestrial ecosystems, and the stereotypical busy bee is much more than a provider of honey. In their quests for nectar and pollen, bees play the role of sexual liaison for the flowering plants, hence the “bees” part of that old talk about “the birds and the bees.”
Many flowering plant species have come to rely on insects for pollination. There is an amazing amount of variety in the structure of flowering plants, many of which are designed to send the bee on a collision course with pollen grains by using the lure of nectar. Pollen contains the male sex cells of the plant, cells that must be transported to a female flower if fertilization is to occur.
Just as bees have warning colors to ward off would-be predators, flowers have specialized color patterns that entice the bee toward the nectar, a sure-fire way to rub pollen on the plumose hairs upon the bee’s legs, thorax and abdomen. Flying from flower to flower in search of nectar, the bee inadvertently allows the miracle of sexual reproduction to occur in the plant world, enhancing genetic diversity and helping the flowering plants to thrive.
Why We Need Them
More than one-third of all food crops in the world rely on bees as pollinators, and savvy gardeners are sure to plant marigolds and other enticing flowers in close vicinity to their squash and peas.
Hang around an apple orchard when the blossoms are fragrant, and you will see more colors, shapes and sizes of bees than you knew were possible. While you are savoring the remarkable biological diversity, take a moment to ponder the steps that go into making an apple.
When bees fertilize the female cells, the petals will fall from the flower. The ovary of the flower will ripen and swell, surrounding developing seeds. This swelling ovary becomes the fruit – the growing, ripening apple.
Without the bee, there is no apple. The same is true of oranges, melons, beans and so many other food crops we take for granted. Add that to honey, the riches of the hive, and it’s easy to see that the bee is one honey of an insect.
Brian M. Collins tortures his colleagues with shameless puns and unsolicited nature facts whenever possible. Enjoy his photography at www.imagesinnaturallight.com.