Flowering plants and bees share a relationship which is known as mutualism, meaning both individual species benefit equally from the relationship. Flowers are crucial to bees, just as bees are crucial to flowers. It is thanks to bees (and a few other insects) that plants are pollinated, which enables plants to reproduce. But exactly what is pollination?
First: How Do Flowers Help Bees?
Flowers provide bees with pollen and nectar. This is collected by worker bees to feed their colonies of many thousands of bees.
- Nectar is a sweet liquid that flowers produce specifically to attract bees, some other insects such as butterflies, and birds such as hummingbirds.
- Pollen is a powder. It contains the male genetic material produced by flowering plants.
How do Bees Collect Pollen and Nectar?
Worker bees buzz around and land on flowers that appeal to them. They drink the nectar, which is stored in the “crop”. This is a stomach-like structure specifically for the storage of nectar. In the process of collecting nectar, bees also become covered in the pollen from the flower, which sticks to the hairs on the bees’ bodies and legs. Some bee species have “pollen baskets”, which are sac-like structures on the legs in which pollen is collected.
Having collected nectar and pollen, bees return to their colony where they regurgitate the nectar. This has been mixed with enzymes in the bees’ bodies. When this mixture is exposed to the air it eventually transforms into honey, which feeds the colony.
Honey bees not only use nectar for feeding on; pollen also plays a large role in the life of the bee colony. When pollen is mixed with nectar, it forms beebread, a protein-rich substance which is used to feed bee babies (larvae).
Pollination: How Do Bees Help Flowers?
Pollination is the process by which bees help flowering plants reproduce.
Plants rely on outside influences to reproduce. These influences are called vectors and they move genetic material between plants.
Pollen contains the male genetic material of a flowering plant, and when bees carry pollen from plant to plant on their legs and bodies, it is spread between flowers which then are enabled to create seeds. Through seeds, plants reproduce.
Some plant species rely completely on pollination to reproduce. As such, bees are critical to the ecosystem and the food supply of animals and humans worldwide.
Can you pollinate plants without bees? Wild European Honeybees are the best overall pollinators. Managed beehive bees are also fabulous and increasingly-important pollinators.
Other important pollinators include:
- Native Bees – great for our native flora as well as fruit crops
- Flying Foxes (Fruit Bats) – essential for native forest ecosystem pollination; they become covered with pollen when they feed at night.
- Butterflies – some can access pollen and nectar that bees can’t
- Blowflies – very important in the pollination of avocado and coffee plants
- Moths – attracted to fragrant white flowers and pawpaw
- Wasps – sip nectar from flowers but don’t feed their young with it
- Hummingbirds, Lorikeets, Honey Eater Birds – important pollinators for native trees
- Beetles – of various species seek pollen exclusively – they have little to no interest in nectar but will eat the petals and even defecate in the flower. They prefer white or green flowers with bowl-shapes and either cluster of small flowers or large solitary flowers.
- Honey Possums, Sugar Gliders, and other small marsupials pollinate banksias and eucalyptus.
- Reptiles – some geckos and skinks feed on nectar and pollinate in the process.
Do All Bees Pollinate?
Commercial European Honey Bees are responsible for most Australian crop pollination. Yet for some crops, native bees are better pollinators:
- Blue Banded Bees are great pollinators for greenhouse tomatoes.
- Sting less Bees are efficient as pollinators for macadamia nut plants, watermelons, lychees, and mangoes.
- Some native bee species practice Buzz Pollination – the bees rub their legs together to vibrate pollen out of the flower and this action is required for the pollination of blueberries, kiwifruit, chilli, and eggplant, among others.
Do Native Bees Make Honey?
There are more than 1,700 native bee species in Australia. We also have the introduced European Honey Bee. The vast majority of the native bees in Australia are solitary in nature and do not store honey in their nests. They instead collect nectar in tiny amounts with which to feed their young. Honey produced by native bees is not recommended for human harvest as the bees rely on it completely to survive.
Australia has eleven species of social Sting less Native Bees which create and store small amounts of Sugar bag. This is an aromatic honey that is stored by bees in small “pots”. In certain conditions, social native bees can be used for the production of honey.
Commercial honey bees and native bee species can usually coexist very happily and work together to pollinate flowering plants as long as there is an adequate supply of food for both. So make sure to plant a pollinator-friendly garden – with a diverse array of flowering plants alongside fruit, vegetables, and herbs to make the most of your garden and protect the bee population in your local environment.