Ok, just one more from that USGS Flickr page full of buggy beauty. Somebody got a little extreme with the pollen!
You, umm, you have something on your face. No, not there. There. You almost got it. Yeah, well, actually it’s like, everywhere. You’re a mess. An absolute mess.
Sheesh, the flower is Studio 54 and this little buzzer is to pollen what Rod Stewart was to nose candy. The first step is admitting you have a problem.
I know, the queen made you do it.
As honey bee populations decline (from pesticide and fungicide use, parasites, and a mix of other factors), scientists like entomologist Claudio Gratton are exploring the exciting idea of pollinating our plants and crops in an “alternative” way: native bees.
“There’s a lot of other pollinators out there,” explains Gratton. The 500 or 600 wild bee species that live in Wisconsin are only a fraction of the 4,000 native to the United States. But because they tend to be solitary, aren’t easily managed, and don’t produce honey, they’ve mostly flown under the radar.
In this video from KQED’s QUEST, learn about these native bee populations and how we can support them by planting pollinator-friendly gardens and championing farms that pollinate with native bee habitats.
A solution to the honeybee problem I’ve never considered (and I’m willing to bet most of you haven’t considered either): What about all the other wild native bees and other insect pollinators?
There’s a lot of agriculture built around the good ol’ honeybee, and we should certainly work to save them. But even if it’s only as a backup plan, these other pollinators are worth studying. Glad someone’s out there doing so.
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
Getting your “buzz” on …
That’s a bee on a coffee flower. Normally, that wouldn’t be worth commenting about. It’s just another bee getting a snack. Except that coffee flowers and a handful of other plants might use caffeine-laced nectar in order to draw bees back like Starbucks-addicts.
Plants produce chemicals like caffeine (along with nicotine, rubber, cocaine and a host of other chemicals) as self-defense mechanisms. If a bee mainlined the caffeine present in the normal plant tissues, it would be poisoned to death. But the low levels present in some nectar might be just enough to give it an addictive buzz and bring it back for more.
Episode Extra: A Flower’s Electric Field
In the “Electric Buzzaloo” episode I did on YouTube, I showed you not only how bees find flowers using UV vision, but also mentioned that they can sense a flower’s electric field. What does that look like?
This image captures the slightly negative electric charge that most flowers carry since they’re literally grounded. After being visited by one bee, it sheds some of that negative buzz to the positively-charged pollinator. If another bee comes along, it won’t be attracted to the less charged (and less nectar-filled) flower.
This maximizes a bee’s chances of visiting fresh flowers and not wasting their time at an empty well. Read more at Nature News.
A “RoboBee” and a synthetic insect eye reported in the same week? Sounds like a full-fledged man-made insect is just around the corner!
University of Illinois-UC researchers built a synthetic compound eye that, instead of focusing on the central field of view like our eyes, can discern depth and shape along its full scope. The resolution is only about that of a rather small ant, but there’s hope it could one day include as many facets as a bee or dragonfly eye. That research is reported in Nature.
And in this week’s Science, Harvard roboticists report the first controlled flight of a coin-size miniature aerial vehicle (MAV) based on the flight physics of insect wings. The construction is based on that used to make pop-up books, an odd advance in micro-building techniques that gave them the precision needed to get it off the ground. The wings aren’t as flexible or functional as real insect wings, but it’s the smallest piloted vehicle ever made. That research is reported in this week’s Science.
Now we just need to extend that compound eye camera’s sensitivity into the UV range, attach it to the RoboBee, and we’ll finally be able to see flowers like we imagined in this YouTube episode of It’s Okay To Be Smart (and maybe synthetically pollinate them!!)
I, for one, welcome our tiny, buzzing underlings.
Like A Bee Sees
By now you’ve probably all watched the latest It’s Okay To Be Smart video about the amaaaaazing ways that bees are able to sense flowers. (actually I know a few of you haven’t so go do that, mmkay? Thanks!)
Beyond the electric field sensing part (which is cool in its own right), it’s the fact that bees see into the “invisible” that just blows my mind. Bees (and butterflies too, actually) have photoreceptors that respond to wavelengths down in the UV range (see chart above). They use that vision to zoom right in on the important part of the flower: the sweet, sugary nectar pot.
Spoiler alert: As much as we love flowers, they don’t really give a crap about us. But they do love bees. In return for giving the bees the sugary yum-yums, flowers get pollinated. And in the name of the evolutionary game, that’s the most important thing. To help get the gene-passing-on done, flowers have evolved certain pigments near the center of the flower that absorb UV light. That paints a big, fat bulls-eye for the bee to land on, right where the flower needs them (next to all the flower-sex bits). To us, the whole flower may look yellow or orange. To a bee. BIG “land here” spot in the middle.
THAT IS AMAZING!!! Nature, you are just too cool.
Thanks to camera technology, we can take UV filtered photos of flowers and see those patterns pop out. It’s a pretty advanced technique, but some of my favorites are above. Check out those photographers’ galleries at the links below:
Pollination 2: Electric Buzz-aloo
Biological senses are one of my favorite things to learn and think about. From your answers on this post, it sounds like many of you are just as fascinated with them as I am. Our reality consists only of what our five limited senses tell us about the world. We can build tools to convert what we can’t sense into something that we can, but we’ll always be limited by our basic set of tools. That’s why it blows my mind to find out things like bees can sense electric fields when looking for flowers!
For half a century, it’s been known that flowers have a negative charge and bees tend to have a positive charge. This is because flowers are “grounded” (literally) and bees build up a sort of static buzz while flying through the air. Why might that be beneficial to flowers? It helps all those pollen particles jump from flower to be to aid the pollination process!
Daniel Robert from the University of Bristol just recently teamed up with a physicist and a botanist to find out whether bees are actually sensing that electricity. They created several shapes of synthetic flowers that they could control the electrical charges of. Bees quickly learned to visit charged/sweet fake flowers over uncharged/bitter fake flowers. This matches what may happen in the wild, since after a bee visits a flower, it takes away not only its nectar, but also some of its zap! If you visit twice, you’re wasting your bee time.
Bees are also able to see things about flower colors that are invisible to us, like using ultraviolet light to see a “bulls-eye” to guide them in:
Why house hunting can be so difficult, or how dancing honey bees exemplify one of nature’s most interesting democracies. What if, in order to convince a few thousand of your friends how awesome something is, you had to dance around in circles hundreds of times? Your dance would have to be so good that they were uncontrollably compelled to dance too. That’s sort of how bees do it.
(via Krulwich Wonders - NPR)