We all have heard of pollination in one way or another. It is one of the most important interactions between plants and insects, and without it we wouldn’t have the diversity of plants and foods that we enjoy everyday. Beekeeping became of interest to me because these magnificent little creatures are the best at pollinating in the insect world. Bees are designed to collect pollen, and actively seek it out. They are the only insects to do this, though many other types of insects, birds, and bats are also pollinators by accident. Bees are covered in hairs that statically attract pollen, and honeybees and bumble bees actually have “pockets” on their hind legs to hold collected pollen. These “pockets” are called pollen baskets, and are easy to see on these bees when they are packed full of colorful pollen.
Honeybees are also the only insects that provide a food humans consume. Honey has been sought out by humans for thousands of years. It is in some cases considered a medicinal food. A jar of honey found in the Egyptian tombs was estimated to be 5500 years old, and if honey is stored properly, it can last forever. Honey is what adult bees eat, and it takes about 75 pounds of honey to supply one colony of honeybees with enough food to survive our long cold winters. I strive each season to get our bees through the winters, but it is proving to be a very difficult task. 2018 was the first season we harvested honey for ourselves, as it can take a season or two to create enough wax comb to even begin to store the necessary amounts of honey a colony requires. A full frame of honey weighs about 9lbs. Bees also produce wax, and a sticky substance called propolis. Bees wax is incredibly energy expensive to produce. For 1 pound of wax to be created, bees must consume 8 pounds of honey, or almost 1 whole frame of honey.
Though honeybees have been in the US since ~1600’s, they are not a native species. They were brought here by early European settlers, and though they can make up for their lack of efficiency in pollinating some plants by sheer numbers, it is our native bee species that are best at pollinating many of our native flowering trees, shrubs, and plants. Some native bees like our Minnesota bumble bee species are actually best at pollinating our blueberry plants, and even tomatoes. Bumble bees are big and strong, and when certain plants like blueberries and tomatoes have extra sticky pollen, it is the bumble bees that can shake that pollen loose. Bumble bees are able to detach their flight muscles from their wings in a way that allows them to vibrate at a rate equal to the frequency of the musical note “C”, and this causes the extra sticky pollen to fall from its perch. This is called sonication.
As I learn more about these buzzy little bugs, I hope to help others understand their importance in our ecosystems. Bees are in serious trouble, and awareness is only the beginning of the solution. There are some key things to understand. First, everyone can make a difference. The most effective thing we all can do is plant bee friendly plants, which are those that provide nectar and pollen. Flowering trees and shrubs will make the biggest and longest lasting impact for bee forage, but all bee friendly flowers help. The next best thing is to reduce your use of herbicides and pesticides. Make chemicals your last resort around your homes and gardens. Adding bat houses, leaving wasp and hornets nests to thrive when space is adequate, avoiding stepping on spiders and preventing unnecessary standing water on your property are great ways to reduce pests naturally. There are a variety of herbal plants that are thought to help deter pesky insects as well. Plants like those in the mint family, or that are citrus smelling are often unfavorable to not only insects, but rodents and even deer. Even better many of the smelly herbs are wonderful bee forage if left to flower. Bee friendly forage is high priority on the farm, and each season I look to add more native flowering trees and shrubs. This not only helps to ensure our honeybees are healthier, but the native populations will also have more foraging options.
Picture 1: Tricolored Bumble bee on Lupine
Picture 2: Leafcutter bee on Sunflower
Picture 3: Pollinator Hotel
Picture 4: Mason Bee early spring
Learn about native plants, their pollinators, and other interesting bugs at www.restoringthelandscape.com