Buzzing For Your Breakfast
If were to ask you what bees eat, what would you say? Honey?
That answer is only partly right. Yes, some bees eat honey (and then usually only in winter), but their menu is a little more varied than just that sticky goodness. Different “castes” of bees eat different mixtures of nectar, honey and pollen.
That’s right, pollen. We all learned that bees help fertilize flowers by spreading the powdery stuff, but the protein-rich, vitamin-filled pollen might as well be called Yum Yum Dust to hungry bees. They eat it in several forms depending on whether they are workers, drones or future queens (those lucky gals get gorged for life on a special substance called royal jelly)
What’s more, they’ve evolved some very interesting relationships with flowers in order to get at their favorite foods. Over at his column in The New York Times, Carl Zimmer writes about bumblebees, those chubby relatives of honey bees, and the way that they literally shake pollen from deep within their floral buffet:
In many cases, these flowers lure an animal with the reward of nectar. As the pollinator sips the plant’s sugary liquid, it gets covered in pollen. It then travels to another flower in search of nectar and delivers the grains.
But 20,000 plant species — including familiar ones like tomatoes, potatoes and cranberries — strike a different deal. They offer pollen itself as food. These flowers don’t simply put the protein-rich pollen out for any animal to eat, however. They keep it tucked deep inside special tubes.
It’s an intricate dance, literally and figuratively, that sees the bee vibrating at forces approaching 30 G’s! And the flower, not wanting to give up all of its fertilizing ability in one shake, tucks the pollen away in tubes. An inefficient system of biological cooperation that couldn’t exist without either half of the handshake.
This isn’t the only bee weirdness we’ve seen. You’ve seen my YouTube episode about how bees see flowers in ultraviolet and use electric fields to find and feed upon them, right? Plants and insects have had millions upon millions of years to work this whole thing out, many separate times, and we shouldn’t confuse their lack of higher-level intelligence for an inability to do awesome stuff. Like bee dances. And bee headbutts.
And none of that even begins to touch on the awesomeness that is beehive engineering! Copious amounts of reading on those hexagonal masterpieces can be found here.
Anyway, so what about the rest of a bee’s menu? What is the difference between nectar and honey, anyway? Nectar is a watery liquid filled with complex sugars that has the consistency of, well, water with a bit of sugar in it (so basically water). Enzymes in a bee’s stomach begin to chop those complex chains of sugar molecules into simpler ones like dextrose and fructose.
They keep a bit in their stomach to power their engines, but regurgitate most of it to housekeeping bees, who then spew it into a honeycomb cell in the hive. The heat inside (95˚ F or so) and flapping wings make the water in the nectar evaporate, and the result is a solution of simple sugars with very little water.
Or, you know … honey. Each worker only makes about 1/12th of a teaspoon in her life, so feeding the whole family (and us) is really a team effort.
(check out Carl’s story at the NY Times for more, photo by Nikola Solic)
Source: The New York Times
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