Bee Pollination

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In the world of plants, bee pollination is a very big deal. Many plants that rely on insects, bees and other pollinators in order to produce fruit. But, honey bee pollination is the major force in modern agriculture. Responsible for billions of dollars in revenue, or crop yield – each year – You may be surprised to learn the role bees play as pollinators.

Worker bee pollination flowers in an orchard.

Why Honey Bee Pollination is Important

Think of honey and you think of bees. And, let’s face it, the story of how bees make honey from plant nectar is a pretty darn impressive tale.

But, they really show off when it comes to agricultural pollination of foods that make up our diet. Though, for some crops, other insects are actually better pollinators.

For example, Bumble Bees are known for “buzz pollination” due to their large size. They can also do well in greenhouses – whereas honey bees just want to get out.

However, for the thousands of acres of modern agriculture – when you say pollination – you are usually talking about honey bee pollination.

What is Pollination?

Pollination occurs when pollen is transferred from the male parts (anthers) of a flower to the female parts (stigma). The result is the formation of a fruit or seed.

Insects, including honey bees, aid in pollination by moving small grains of pollen from flower to flower. Pollen is often moved to flowers on another plant of the same variety.   

Pollinated plants produce more fruit/seed resulting in a much larger yield. Thought, some plants are self pollinating and need no help from wind or insects to produce fruit.

Honey bee lured to flower with plant nectar.

Plants Use Nectar to Attract Insects

Flowering plants requiring insect pollinators produce heavy sticky particles of pollen. This pollen is too heavy to move in the wind. They must rely on an outside source to transfer the grains of pollen.

On average, these plants have larger flowers and most produce a sweet liquid known as nectarHoney bees, native bees, wasps, flies and other pollinators visit the flowers to harvest the sweet nectar.

Bee Pollination is an Accident!

The fuzzy, hairy little bodies of our worker bees collect pollen accidentally. Yes, while they are busy looking for sweet nectar, some of the pollen particles will adhere to the tiny hairs on their bodies.

At the next flower, perhaps some pollen drops off and pollen from that blossom is added to the bee hairs. This is cross=pollination.

But, pollination is not always so very accidental. Sometimes, bees visit flowers for looking for pollen. The colorful pollen grains are stuck onto the pollen baskets on the bee’s hind legs and carried back to the hive.

Once there, it is transformed into bee bread for long term storage. Honey bees use pollen to feed baby bees.

Most Plants are Not Pollinated by Bees

Contrary to the romantic idea – honey bees are not responsible for pollination of most of the world’s food sources.

Large amounts of dry light-weight pollen is produced by some plants. The wind carries the small dry particles to receptive flowers.

Wind pollinated plants do not have to attract pollinators. These include: wheat, corn, rice, rye, barley and oats. Pines, firs, spruces and many hardwoods trees are also pollinated in this manner.

Honey bees and other pollinators may sometimes gather this pollen. However, it is not their primary protein source.

Honey bee pollinating sunflowers in field.

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Modern Agriculture & Honey Bee Pollination

Honey bees (Apis mellifera) contribute over $20 billion a year to US agricultural efforts. We enjoy apples, watermelon, cucumbers, squash and other fruits because of insect and/or bee pollination.

Infographic chart on bee pollination facts image.

Native pollinators, (bees, birds, bats etc.) also play a role in pollination. Another popular pollinator for the home gardener is the Mason Bee- a bit different from honey bees.

Some gardeners provide a house for Mason Bees in hopes they will take up residence near their gardens and orchards.

Plants that Rely on Bees

In the plant world, there are many varieties that depend on bee pollination. Not all of them are fruits and vegetables that you would see at the grocery.

Bees also help pollinate plants that produce animal feed. And, many native trees feed bees and benefit from bee pollination. The fruit they produce helps feed wildlife.

Among plants grown for human consumption, many rely on bee pollination in order to produce a good crop. These foods are a regular part of our diet and some are large commercial crops.

  • okra
  • kiwifruit
  • cashew
  • watermelon
  • cantaloupe
  • cucumber
  • squash
  • pumpkins
  • apple
  • strawberry
  • and many others
Large field of pumpkins in modern agriculture field image.

Honey Bees Perfect for Crops

Why are honey bees so important to agriculture? There are several reasons honey bee pollination is such a good deal for large crop fields.

It is easy to move large colonies across country-migratory beekeeping (moving bees from one state to another)-following the crop bloom. Other insects do not live in such large colonies-that make the effort worthwhile.

Pollination Jobs are Not Always Good for Bees

While bees are good at it, bee pollination is not always kind to the colonies involved. Modern agriculture often practices mono-crop systems.

Honey bees need to eat a varied diet instead of eating the same thing for weeks on end. This lack of a diverse food source can cause unhealthy bees.

Thousands of beehives are easily trucked across the US each year. But, moving beehives is stressful for the colony (that has to remain locked up in the box during the trip). Stress causes health problems in bees as well as humans.

Most crops will produce a larger harvest with proper bee pollination. However, some crops (such as Almonds) depend 100% on honey bees.

Declining bee populations (native and managed) have caused a shortage of hives for almond pollination.

Efforts to Improve Conditions for Bees

Commercial beekeepers who offer a pollination service often feed supplements to their bees. This can help replace lacking nutrients in the diet of the colony.

As researchers learn more about honey bee health, growers are looking for more ways to help save bees. These practices are good for the bees and the farmers too.

  • Restricting pesticide use to a minimum and proper application techniques can protect bee colonies. Avoid highly toxic formulations such as imidacloprid.
  • Instead of having acres of the same crops, farmers are planting cover crops in between the rows. This adds diversity to the bee diet.  

Backyard Beehives Help Increase Local Efforts

Thousands of backyard enthusiasts across the country enjoy beginner beekeeping. These small bee yards with 2, 4, or 10 hives in the backyard might be kept in hopes of producing honey.

But, beekeeping has more benefits than honey. It is not uncommon for new beekeepers with a small vegetable garden or small orchard to notice an significant increase in crop yield.

Having a few beehives around may even increase your apple harvest enough to enjoy making some Honey Apple Butter in the crockpot. All these crops yield more when bees are involved.

In fact, other homeowners in your neighborhood may experience the same. The beekeeper may be helping everyone in the area have more productive gardens and orchards.

image of pollinator ebook to help grow your bee garden

Promote Bee Pollination in Your Area

Homeowners and small scale beekeepers can help the honey bees by planting flowers bees love. Chose a wide variety of plant types that bloom over a long season. 

Try to include many plants that provide nectar, pollen or both over the Summer months. Increasing suitable bee habitats.

Restrict the use of pesticides and herbicides in your gardens and on your lawns. Use the least toxic formula and read the label to learn the best application times.

FAQs

How does a bee pollinate?

While collecting nectar or pollen from a flower, some pollen rubs off from the stamen (anthers – male parts) of the flower and sticks to the bee’s hairy body. When she moves on to the next flowers this pollen transfer continues – resulting in pollen being dispersed from one flower to another.

How important are bees in pollination?

About 1/3 of the world’s food crops depend on the pollination efforts of bees, other insects or animals.

Do bees know they are pollinating?

No, bees do not know they are helping pollinate the flowers. They are simply collecting the nectar or pollen they need for the colony.

What bee pollinates the most?

The honey bee pollinates the most plants due to their large families, portability as colonies and drive to collect food.

Final Thoughts

All bees are important. Native bees, honey bees, butterflies and other pollinators all have a role to play. They are all at risk. Working together we can make the world a better place for them. By doing so, hopefully we can continue to enjoy the benefits of honey bee pollination for many years to come.

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