Why you should thank a bee for your apple

Fall is approaching fast and that means one thing: apple picking season! If you’re from the Northeast, apple picking may have been a staple for you growing up. I know for me it was, and I would get particularly excited about my mom’s homemade apple crisp.

Apple picking is a great activity that can be done socially distanced! Image Credit: Sylvie Finn

Something you may not have thought about when strolling the orchards or eating your grandmother’s famous apple pie is: how did this apple come to be?

Before we get to Grandma’s apple pie, we need to rewind a little bit. Back to springtime to be specific. 

On a New England day in May, if you found yourself in an apple orchard, you would be met with sweet smells and the sight of trees covered in blossoms. If you looked more closely, you might find the secret to all the busy orchards in the fall. You guessed it, you would see lots and lots of bees. These bees are providing a critical service to the apple trees; by transferring pollen from tree to tree, they are fertilizing the soon-to-be-seeds in the apple flower. Once fertilized, the plant makes a protective and nutritious encasement around the seeds, which lucky for us, is an apple! 

A bumble bee visits an apple blossom. Image Credit: Flickr (Silver Leapers)

Apple farmers know they need pollination to occur in order to get a fruit, so many set up their orchards in a way that ensures a good fruit set. They do this by setting up what’s called “pollination partners.”  Apple blossoms only bloom for around 9 days, so it is important that there are other trees nearby that are also blooming in order for cross-pollination to occur. By planting genetically compatible trees that bloom during the same time, farmers ensure that their apple trees will get pollinated and therefore get a good fruit set. 

Honey bees (Apis mellifera) have been historically and commonly used as a way to ensure pollination in apple orchards. These days, thousands of honey bee hives are trucked in for the short, four-week apple blooming season. Some orchards also use managed bumble bees (Bombus spp.) or mason bees (Osmia spp.), although this practice is much less common. 

However, growing evidence suggests that the most important pollinators are the wild bees that are already visiting the orchards. Wild mining bees (Andrena spp.), sweat bees (Lasioglossum spp.), cellophane bees (Colletes spp.), and mason bees (Osmia spp.) are all commonly found visiting apple blossoms in spring. Not only that, but wild bees have evolved to live in harsh spring conditions, so they pollinate in colder wetter weather when honey bees refuse to forage. Even more importantly, wild bees transfer more pollen than honey bees per visit and make more visits per hour. Taken together, over the blooming period of an orchard, wild bees are much more effective pollinators than honey bees. 

To learn more about the amazing diversity and life history of wild bees you can find in eastern apple orchards, click here

Regardless of what bee visited the flowers that made your apple possible, next time you take a bite into a crispy red apple, make sure to thank a bee! And if you, like me, will be bringing in the Jewish New Year tomorrow night with the tradition of dipping apples in honey, make sure to thank many bees!

Apple dipped in apple blossom honey, what a treat! Image Credit: Sylvie Finn

*TPI tip*

You know that crabapple tree outside your house that’s just covering your yard with small rotten apples? Harvest your crabapples! Crabapples are wild apples that are edible (never poisonous!) and make great applesauce and apple butter. I made this batch from foraged crabapples I found in the area.

Homemade crabapple butter. Image Credit: Sylvie Finn

Help TPI find bumble bee colonies!

While you’ve been hunkered down at home, have you seen any bumble bees in your urban yard? Maybe you’ve even seen a bumble bee nest! We want your help in scouting out the bumble bee nests of the urban greater Boston area.

TPI scientists have been hard at work trying to learn about the nesting ecology of bumble bees (Bombus spp). Bumble bee nests are the focal point of reproduction. In early spring, the queen emerges and forages alone for pollen and nectar. Then, she produces workers which take on foraging tasks, and the colony grows exponentially. Late in the season, as the colony begins to senesce, males and new queens are produced. After mating, males die and queens overwinter underground to start the cycle over.

Bumble bee reproduction cycle
Bumble bee life cycle. Image credit: Jeremy Hemberger

We have learned a great deal about bumble bee nesting in natural areas, but now it’s time to take that work into the city. Preliminary results already suggest that bumble bee reproductive ecology may differ between natural and urban environments, and we want to explore this further. Bumble bee nests can be difficult to find, but that’s where YOU come in.

Do you think you’ve seen a bumble bee nest? We want to see it! Bumble bees are cavity nesters, meaning they nest in small openings, such as crevices in rock walls beneath garden sheds. If you see frequent traffic of worker bumble bees (~1 bee/minute) to and from a single location, chances are you found a colony! 

Bumble bees nesting in an old bird house. Image credit: Kstevens01, Flickr

If you think you have a bumble bee nest in your yard, or know of one in the greater Boston area (within 15 miles of the Tufts Medford-Somerville campus), take a photo and get in touch with us by filling out this survey.

Thank you in advance and we look forward to hearing from you!

Which pollinator are you?

Written by: Sylvie Finn, one of our newest TPI members!

It’s National Pollinator Week, so in an effort to learn about our diverse pollinators, take this quick quiz to see which pollinator is in your personality!

Directions: This is an old school keep-track-yourself type of quiz. Think personality quiz in a tween magazine. Grab a piece of scrap paper, keep track of how many A’s, B’s, C’s, etc you have, and at the end you will be able to discover something fabulous about yourself.

1. Imagine you step into your dream house. You look around and see:

A. Ornate geometric patterns
B. Sophisticated plaster work all around
C. The house you’re sitting in right now!
D. This is a hard question…I’d rather have two totally different and exciting homes
E. As long as there’s a stacked pantry, I’m happy!
F. Something I build myself to my liking

2. Your friends would describe you as:

A. Hardworking
B. Friendly
C. High strung
D. A social butterfly
E. Loyal
F. Hyper

3. On a Saturday night, you can be found:

A. Out on the town with “the girls”
B. Working in your basement
C. At a dive bar with your buddies hovering around the peanut and pretzel bowls at the bar
D. Getting your beauty rest
E. Cuddled up with a good book
F. Indulging in your sweet tooth

4. Your personal style is:

A. Whatever your friends are wearing
B. Stripes!
C. All black every day
D. Bold color choices
E. Give me that fuzzy sweater
F. Metallics anyone?

5. Your favorite color is:

A. Yellow
B. Blue
C. White
D. Pink
E. Ultraviolet
F. Red

6. You get to the park and someone is sitting on your favorite bench, you:

A. Take a seat, there’s room for two
B. Decide that going to the park was a horrible idea
C. Linger in front of the bench until the person sitting there becomes uncomfortable and leaves
D. Go to another bench, there are plenty of benches to go around
E. What person? I see a bench, I sit
F. I don’t have this problem, no one likes the kinds of benches I do

7. Your dream vacation:

A. Take me to a new city! I love a buzzing metropolis
B. Exploring a cave with your pals
C. An all-inclusive resort just for the all-you-can-eat buffet
D. Mountains of Mexico, please and thank you
E. Stay-cation works for me, as long as there are snacks
F. Take me anywhere ~TroPiCaL~

8. For your birthday this year, you want:

A. A big party with all of my of friends and acquaintances
B. A small party with only my closest friends
C. To be left alone
D. To fly in the sky! Paragliding? Skydiving?
E. To make sure those around me are well fed
F. To go on an adventure somewhere new

Time to find out which pollinator you are…

MOSTLY A’s: Honey bee (Apis mellifera)

You are the “gold” standard for bees. Known for your incredible social intelligence and honey making skills, you are very hardworking and constantly referenced. You’re a total feminist, loving to live in female-dominated society.

Photo: Rachael E. Bonoan, Flickr
MOSTLY B’s: Cellophane bee (Colletes spp.)

You are an aesthetic architect. You are literally named after the materials you build with and are fashionable in your stripes and fluff. You like your alone time, but enjoy sharing experiences with friends when the time is right.

Photo: Team Colletes, Flickr
MOSTLY C’s: Hover fly (e.g. Eristalis transversa)

You are one of the lesser known pollinators and you like it that way. Your fast paced lifestyle keeps others on edge and you always stay unconventional.

flower fly, hover fly
Photo: Team Colletes, Flickr
MOSTLY D’s: Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus)

You are the poster child of all butterflies. Like a monarch, you are elegant and have very specific taste. You also are a total travel junky and love to go to new places beyond what your imagination can hold.

monarch butterfly
Photo: Nick Dorian
MOSTLY E’s: Bumble bee (Bombus spp.)

You are everyone’s best friend, smart and oh so sweet. You know how to cuddle up with a good book, but when you think theres some good food somewhere, you can zoom there quite quickly.

Photo: Team Colletes, Flickr
MOSTLY F’s: Ruby throated humming bird (Archilochus colubris)

You are many people’s favorite birds and a very special pollinator. While there are hundreds of species of humming birds in the tropics, you are the only one to grace us here in the North East. If people can catch a glimpse of you, you always dazzle them.

Photo: Michael Janke, Flickr