Bee Mine: Pollinator Love Stories

The world of pollinators and flowers is full of love and heartbreak. For Valentine’s Day week, we’ve come up with some tales of romance to share: male honey bees that explode upon mating; hawkmoths that don’t pull their weight in the relationship; what happens when humans meddle with pollination; and more! Follow us on social media @PollinateTufts for daily updates ❤️ 

Bumble bees (Bombus impatiens) are in love with goldenrods.

Love is in the air …. and pollen – Jessie Thuma
On a crisp autumn morning, the bumble bee awakes at first light,
She suns herself at the entrance to her nest and prepares to take flight.

From her nest below the ground, she sets out through the meadow. 
What flower will she choose first? Blue or purple or yellow?

She’s an early riser, and has her pick of flowers.
But she will wait for that special bouquet that holds her in its power.

As she flies between the trees, 
She catches a sweet scent carried by the breeze.

A patch of goldenrod lit by the mid-morning sun, 
Stalks of yellow flowers enticing bees with tasty pollen.

The worker slows to land, taking stock of her workplace,
The goldenrod welcomes her, flowers opening like a warm embrace.

As she moves from plant to plant her baskets fill with pollen,
But she leaves a little behind at each plant, setting seed for future blossom.

Flowers take the shape best suited to their companion bee,
And in return bees drop pollen between plants in a pollination jubilee.

Some flowers are so perfectly shaped that only a bumble bee can reach the pollen inside,
And for these plants the worker sings a sweet buzzing song coaxing the petals to open wide.

Bumble bees are loyal and will visit the same patch of flowers for weeks on end,
Once they are enticed to try the reward, that flower becomes a bee’s best friend.

The worker leaves when she can carry no more, 
But she will be back tomorrow—that is for sure.

A honey bee drone. His huge eyes help him
find a queen to mate with, his only purpose in life! (PC: Karen Johns, Flickr)

The tragic love of a honey bee drone Isaac Weinberg
Male honey bees–known as drones–have only one purpose: reproduction. They leave the nest in the spring and summer, using their massive eyes to tirelessly search for a queen to mate with. With each hive producing hundreds of drones, but only one or two queens, most drones fail to find a mate. Eventually, these unlucky males are barred from reentering the hive, and die within a few days, cold and alone. For the lucky few that find a mate, however, love is bittersweet. The male projects his love with such force that his reproductive organs explode with a loud audible “pop,” killing the lucky bee. Thus, for the drone, Lord Tennyson’s poem becomes the eternal question; Is it better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all?

Orchid bees come in combinations of brilliant and iridescent colors, including green, blue, purple, orange, and yellow!  (PC: Euglossa imperialis; Flickr, USGS Bee Lab)

Orchid Bee Mine Sylvie Finn
For many, Valentine’s Day is about indulgent gift giving. Maybe you’re thinking about getting your loved one an orchid, or perhaps a fancy perfume. Well, I hate to break it to you, but you’re a little late to the game on that idea. Orchid bees are the ultimate authority on Valentine’s Day gift giving. As their name suggests, male orchid bees have a special relationship with tropical orchids (Orchidaceae). Males are attracted to the sweet and specific volatiles of orchids and use special hairs on their front legs to collect the essential oils that produce the scents. The males then store these essential oils in large modified hind legs. Each species of orchid bee has its own “recipe” of scents to combine, creating the perfect perfume to woo a mate. Once the male bee has perfected his fragrance, he presents his perfume to females in the hopes of impressing her with his ultimate Valentine’s Day gift. If he’s lucky, his perfume will be so complex and impressive that the female orchid bee will choose him as her valentine.

Tobacco hornworm moths are nocturnal pollinators. (PC: Mike Lewinski, Flickr)

You take too much in this relationship Adam Pepi
Hawkmoths are nocturnal pollinators of many plant species, including the fragrant night-opening flowers of wild tobacco. The pollination is beneficial for the tobacco plants, but sometimes the moths leave an unpleasant gift behind: their offspring. Hawkmoths deposit eggs on tobacco plants, which develop into giant caterpillars (also known as hornworms), devouring the leaves of the tobacco. This makes this a risky deal for the tobacco, but they have other options: tobacco plants that are attacked by caterpillars keep their flowers closed at night so that the hawkmoths aren’t attracted, and instead open their flowers during the day to attract hummingbirds. We can learn something from the tobacco plant this Valentine’s Day–don’t let the hawkmoth in your life hold you back.

Bicolored striped-sweat bees (Agapostemon virescens) are faithful partners of wild roses.

Roses and bees–a love story a million years in the makingNick Dorian
It wouldn’t be Valentine’s day without roses. But the roses you pick up for your honey are a far cry from the roses a bee visits in a meadow. Wild roses are simple and straightforward: five white or light pink petals open to the sky, a delicate fragrance, with pollen-laden anthers and corollas full of nectar. These flowers look and smell this way as the result of a love story with bees millions of years in the making. In contrast, ornamental roses show what happens when humans meddle with this relationship. Through careful breeding over thousands of years, we’ve managed to accentuate all the flower traits that we deem desirable, and discarded those we deem undesirable. A swirl of lipstick red petals, a hyper-intense fragrance, and no messy pollen or sticky nectar to speak of–something a bee would never recognize as her faithful lover! As a result, ornamental roses are entirely dependent on humans for reproduction. Ornamental roses may win our hearts, but it’s safe to say their long-term relationship with bees is over for good.

Return of the honey bees

Isaac Weinberg

To watch my honey bee spring inspection click here!

Spring has sprung, and the bees and butterflies have begun their return to Medford. If you’re like me, you may have wondered why insect pollinators were gone in the first place. Cold temperatures and lack of flowering plants make New England winters an inhospitable place for insects, yet year after year they return. Different species use different strategies to get through the winter months. Monarch butterflies dodge the cold by migrating south for the winter. Bumble bee queens sleep through the winter in subterranean burrows. Other insects lay eggs in fall that remain dormant in winter and hatch in spring.

Honey bees are unique in that they are the only insect pollinator that is awake and active throughout the entire winter. They are able to do this because of their massive colony size of up to 50,000 bees. Honey bees bunch up in their hive like emperor penguins and spend all winter shivering by flexing their wing muscles to keep their hive warm. Even in the coldest months of winter, honey bees can keep the temperature of their colony above 90 degrees Fahrenheit! In order to have energy to shiver all winter, honey bees hoard pounds of honey and pollen in the summer and fall which they eat for energy over the course of winter.

a Varroa mite (visible in red) feeds on the fat body of a developing bee.

Recently, overwintering deaths of managed honey bee colonies in the US has been incredibly high, with almost 40% of colonies dying each winter. Over the winter it is very difficult for beekeepers to directly help colonies, since opening a hive and exposing it to the cold would be incredibly damaging. Because of this, many beekeepers to take an active hand in helping their bees in the early spring. The first cool days in spring are very dangerous. They have likely consumed all their food stores and, with few flowers yet blooming, there may be no way for them to restock. Spring is also when there are is an explosive increase in populations of Varroa destructor, a parasitic mite that latches on to honey bees and eats their fat bodies. In the spring it is often critical for beekeepers to supplement the nutrition of their colonies, and keep the mite population under control in order to have strong healthy hives during the year.

Honey bees get most of their nutrients from different flower products, they collect sugar rich nectar to make honey which adult bees use as their main source of energy, and protein rich pollen which is fed to larvae to help them grow. In order to help supplement the diets of bees, beekeepers can feed their colonies sugar solution, and synthetic pollen patties. One type of pollen patty is made using bee collected pollen and mixing it with a 1:1 sucrose:water solution until it has a clay like consistency. In the absence of pollen, other supplements like yeast, protein powder, and eggs can be mixed with sugar water to create patties. Patties can then be made available to the bees by simply placing them in the center of the beehive.

A pollen patty wrapped in freezer paper and placed in the center of a honey bee hive.

Next, many beekeepers treat for the mite Varroa destructor. Varroa is one of the biggest contributors to honey bee decline in the United States. The mite latches on to honey bees and feeds on their fat bodies, draining nutrient reserves, and spreading disease throughout a colony. The mites primarily target honey bee larvae, and reproduce by laying their eggs directly on honey bee brood. As honey bee colonies begin to rear large amounts of brood in spring mite populations also increase exponentially. For this reason, it is important to treat for mites before a colony begins its spring uptick in brood rearing. There are many ways beekeepers treat for Varroa, which vary both in their efficacy combatting Varroa and in their lethality to the honey bees themselves. One of the most common treatments are Apivar strips because they are easy to use, relatively benign for the honey bees, and deadly to the mites. The strips can be easily hung in a honey bee hive and paralyze mites, preventing them from feeding. Because the active ingredient in Apivar is an arachnicide, it acts on the spider-like mites without causing excessive harm to the honeybees, and also does not linger for long in the hive once removed.

Though winters are an energetically demanding time for honey bees, and the early days of spring can be dangerous with temperature fluctuations and limited flowers (especially in New England where we get snow in April!), beekeepers can take an active hand in ensuring colony success. By supplementing food in early spring, treating colonies for mites, and being careful to leave some honey for the bees during fall collections, beekeepers help their colonies start the year on a strong footing and remain healthy and productive all year round!

How did the bees survive the Notre Dame fire?

You may have seen in the news that the three honey bee colonies on the roof of Notre Dame survived the tragic fire that destroyed much of the Cathedral. This was possible because honey bees are incredibly adept at maintaining the temperature of their hive and have developed behavioral mechanisms to survive in heated environments. The driving force behind hive temperature maintenance is brood protection. Honey bee brood (the eggs, larvae, and pupae that will grow into adult bees) can only develop properly within a specific temperature range. Too cold and they are more vulnerable to disease and parasites, too hot and they are likely to develop deformities which prevent them from performing hive duties as adults. Since adult honey bees only live for around thirty days in summer, it is critical that the brood are maintained at a healthy temperature to ensure the survival of the colony.

To survive the heat, honey bees have evolved three main behavioral strategies to cool their hive: fanning, heat shielding, and evaporative cooling.  In fanning behavior, honey bees fan their wings to create cool air currents that push hot air out of the hive. When enough bees start fanning the colony changes their position to create air current pathways which look rivers running between the bees throughout the hive. Paired with fanning, bees will induce a sweat like evaporative cooling effect by sucking up stored water and spraying it in hot areas of the hive.

The third major way that honey bees cool their hives is with a behavior called heat shielding. Honey bees usually stand with their body on their comb, and their backs to the hive wall. When the wall gets too hot, the bees will stand instead on the walls of the hive to absorb heat into their bodies.  Once individual bees get too hot they move to the edges of the hive where they dissipate the heat. By engaging in this behavior honey bees are able to act as mobile heat sink units, physically transporting heat within their bodies away from temperature sensitive brood. With these three behaviors honey bees can rapidly cool their hive from dangerously hot temperatures and survive extreme circumstances like the fire at Notre Dame.