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.

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!