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What Is Pollination?

As beekeepers, we know that honeybees are instrumental in pollinating the majority of the foods that we humans need and value, such as our many fruits, vegetables, and legumes.  In fact, according to Google, bees and other pollinators affect 35 percent of global agricultural land, supporting the production of 87 of the leading food crops worldwide!  Wikipedia’s list of crop plants pollinated by bees is extensively long.

Honeybees also pollinate many other types of trees and plants throughout the natural world.  In fact, honeybees are one of the most industrious pollinators on the planet, and critical to the success of much of human agriculture.

But what exactly is pollination, and what is actually going on when honeybees pollinate flowers?

When we humans admire the beauty of flowers, we rarely stop to consider that flowers are the sexual organs of plants.  There are male flowers, and there are female flowers.  The goal of nature is to move the genetic material from the male to the female.  Pollination is the transfer of male microspores from a male flower to the ovule of a female flower.  This is the sexual reproduction of a plant, ultimately resulting in the creation of a seed.

A male flower features what is called a stamen.  This is the part of the male flower that produces pollen.  A female flower features what is called the pistil.  The tip of the pistil, called the stigma, receives the pollen and transfers the pollen down the pistil to the flower’s ovule, fertilizing it and enabling the formation of a fruit or some other carrier of the plant’s seed, such as a pod, a vegetable, or just a seed itself.

The honeybee’s role in all of this is to transfer the pollen from male flower to female flower.  Some plants and trees have both male and female flowers on the same tree (monoecious) or male flowers on one tree and female flowers on another (dioecious).  Either way, a honeybee doesn’t seem to care much.  She just goes from flower to flower, plant to plant, looking for nectar, and in the process inadvertently transfers tiny pieces of pollen from male flowers to female flowers without that even being her goal.

It is most likely that the main reason that flowers look so appealing, and feature such sweet nectar, is to attract animals to pollinate them.  The sweeter the nectar that a plant produces, the bigger the lure for honeybees and other insect pollinators, such as bumblebees, orchard bees, squash bees and solitary bees, to visit.

Honeybees are not the only animal pollinators of plants.  Any animal that visits flowers contributes to pollination – hummingbirds, bats, butterflies, ladybugs, beetles and other insects – also pollinate.  Sadly, like honeybees, many of these beneficial pollinators are under environmental stress, and face ongoing population decline.

There are some plants, however, that do not rely on animals for pollination, but rather are wind pollinated, such as the grasses of corn, wheat, and rice.  It is noteworthy, that unlike animal-pollinated blossoms, which are almost always colorful and sweet, these wind-pollinated blossoms look exceedingly dull and contain no nectar.  This is because they have no incentive to attract pollinating animals, such as honeybees.  Instead, the goal of wind pollinated plants is simply to produce as much pollen as possible and throw the pollen into the wind, hoping that it hits its target.

As beekeepers, we may be a bit biased, but we much prefer flower pollination by bees, as just thinking about windward grass pollen make us want to sneeze!

The Summer Dearth

Nearly all regions in the United States reach a point, usually in late summer, where a nectar dearth occurs.  Here at Wildflower Meadows, our dearth typically begins in early August, after the last sumac flowers dry up.  The dearth period can vary from year to year, but at some point it is guaranteed to happen.

At the beginning of a dearth, bee colonies are susceptible to a number of health risks, chief of which is nutrition.  Honeybees, in general, do a poor job in preparing for dearth.  When times are good, the queen lays as much brood as possible.  However, most queen bees rarely anticipate that the good times will end.  It is only after the nectar dries up that the queen slows or ceases her abundant egg laying.  As a result, bee colonies nearly always overshoot their populations during times of abundance.  At the onset of dearth, the colony population is typically huge, with even more brood in the pipeline.  This creates immediate nutrition stress.

If a beekeeper fails to support the colony at the onset of dearth with supplemental feeding, particularly of pollen supplement patties, this nutrition stress can lead to poor quality bees not only in the current generation of bees, but in the next generation.  Poorly nourished nurse bees can lead to poorly nourished larvae, and so on.

Another danger to the colony at the onset of dearth is a potential drop in queen pheromone.  Researchers who measure queen pheromone in colonies note that the presence of this pheromone is not consistent over the course of a year, but rather fluctuates, often rising with the presence of abundant conditions, and declining during dearth.  As a result, queen supercedure is more apt to occur during dearth than abundance.

As a conscientious beekeeper, you should always have an idea as to when the dearth periods occur in your region, and prepare your colonies for them.

 

Pollen Supplement Patties

In times when flowers are in short supply, bee colonies can fall short on the protein and nutrition that they require from bee pollen.  Bee pollen is critical inside a colony because it provides many of the main ingredients in royal jelly and worker jelly that is used to feed developing larvae.  Especially towards the end of summer when flowers are in short supply, the bees can rapidly work down their stores of pollen.  Once the pollen has run out, unless brood rearing has completely shut down, bees still need to feed larvae.  The next source of nutrients that they use to produce feed for larvae is called vitellogenin. It is the very food storage reservoir within worker bees that workers selflessly share with larvae, depleting their own life force in the process.

As a conscientious beekeeper, you do not want your bees to be in a situation where they are cannibalizing their own strength in order to continue as a hive.  Long before bees completely run out of pollen stores, a good beekeeper begins feeding some sort of pollen supplement.

As a queen producer, our colonies have an even greater need for abundant pollen than normal colonies.  The royal jelly that is fed to all queen cells requires massive amounts of pollen to produce.  As a result, we need to be assured that our queen cell building colonies are overflowing with protein sources as well as all the ingredients necessary to produce well fed, quality queen cells.  At Wildflower Meadows, we make our own pollen supplement patties, which we feed to our queen rearing colonies year round.  The patties are placed between the bee boxes, right under or over the brood nest so that the bees can consume the patties easily and rapidly.

Many commercial beekeepers have their own proprietary blends of pollen substitutes that they use to make pollen substitute patties.  Typical ingredients are brewers yeast, soy flour, freeze dried pollen or sometimes pea protein.  Most beekeeping supply outfits also sell bags of prepackaged pollen supplements, some of which are secret formulas, but nearly all of which are various combinations of more or less the same ingredients.

patties

 

Lately at Wildflower Meadows we have been making our pollen supplement patties (shown above) using UltraBee dry mix from Mann Lake, which is a well known high quality supplement.

The bottom line, however, is that when a colony is starving, any supplement is far better than no supplement, and brand preference is much less important than making sure that the bees have the basic nutrition that they need to thrive.

Pollen Baskets

Bees need both protein and carbohydrates.  The bees’ carbohydrates mainly come from nectar.  Protein comes from pollen.  Pollen originates from the male parts of flowers, known as anthers.  The bees collect pollen and store them in pellets in sacks on their legs, known as “pollen baskets.”

The photo above shows a bee carrying a full load of pollen.  When the bees enter the hive they carry their pollen to the brood nest, and typically offload it into honeycomb cells directly over the brood nest.

Pollen is a key ingredient in the “worker jelly” that the nurse bees feed to the developing larvae.  It is also a key ingredient in royal jelly, which is the essential food of a developing queen.  Abundant pollen means abundant royal jelly, which means quality queen honey bees.  It is no surprise that the healthiest queen honeybees are raised in locations where there are abundant pollen flows.

Sometimes when inspecting a hive, you will see bees walking around with pollen still in their baskets.  Are they headed to offload it, or are they just showing off their excellent “pollen pants” to their sisters?

Bee Bread

Like all animals, bees need protein to survive.  While nectar is an excellent source of carbohydrates for bees, it is lacking in protein.  Bee pollen, besides containing other minerals and enzymes, is the primary source of protein in a beehive.  In optimal conditions, foraging bees obtain protein for the hive by gathering pollen from flowers and bringing the pollen back to the hive in their pollen baskets.  Once these flower pollen pellets are gathered by foraging bees, the pollen is then referred to as bee pollen.

If you’ve ever bought or collected bee pollen to use as a nutritional supplement, you quickly learn that bee pollen needs to be frozen, or at least refrigerated, so that it does not spoil.  How then are bees able to store bee pollen in an environment that is 93 degrees on average?

The bees’ secret to storing and preserving pollen is that they convert the pollen pellets that they gather into “bee bread,” which is a combination of pollen, honey and enzymes.  The honey and enzymes combine to form a natural preservative that keeps the pollen from spoiling, and preserves its nutritional value almost indefinitely.  This bee bread is stored inside the honey combs, typically alongside the brood nest, where it is consumed by nurse bees who convert it to royal jelly or worker jelly to feed larvae.

One of the more satisfying sights to a conscientious beekeeper when inspecting a hive is finding a giant colorful frame of beebread.  The colors give away the sources from where the bees have been collecting pollen.  In Southern California, yellow bee bread in the spring typically means that the bees have been working golden mustard, while yellow bee bread in the fall generally originates from goldenrod.  Sometimes – especially in areas where the bees are located near residential homes and exotic gardens – we notice the strangest assortment of colors.  Bright blue or near florescent red can make a beekeeper scratch his head, and wonder, “Where in the world did that pollen come from!”