Flowers and bees have evolved over millions of years to create a relationship that benefits both species. Bees require flower nectar and pollen for their survival, while flowers rely on bees for pollination to reproduce.
Flowers use their color and scent to attract bees and other pollinators. In addition to blues, greens and purples, bees can see ultraviolet, which appears on flower petals as patterns and markings. Invisible to the human eye, these markings serve as directional cues, pointing bees toward the nectar and pollen-rich areas of the flower. Flowers release scent chemicals into the air that serve as an advertisement for their pollen and nectar stores. Thanks to the sensitive scent receptors on their antennae, bees are lured – sometimes from a great distance – by the smell of these flower chemicals.
What is pollination?
A bee lands on a flower in search of energy-rich nectar, which gives it the necessary fuel to keep foraging for food. Nectar is often deep in the flower, encouraging the bee to dive in and explore.
While searching for nectar, the bee’s fuzzy body brushes against the flower’s anther, part of the male reproductive system, which produce the powdery pollen. As the bee moves about, the pollen sticks to its body, particularly on the legs and abdomen.
When the bee flies away, it takes the pollen stuck to its body along for the ride. As it explores another flower, some of the pollen it was carrying rubs onto the stigma, which part of the female reproductive system of the plant. This flower-to-bee-to-flower transfer is called cross pollination.
Cross-pollination creates genetic diversity, which improves a plant species overall health and adaptability. It also helps plants produce seeds that are more resistant to disease and environmental stress. Self-pollination, on the other hand, happens when the pollen from the anther lands on the stigma of a flower from the same plant, usually by wind.
Once pollen lands on the stigma, the flower begins to grow a tube down through its female reproductive structure. The pollen travels down this tube to fertilize the flower eggs in the ovary. This fertilization process leads to the formation of fruits and seeds – and the next generation of plants.
Pollination makes food better
Pollination by the honey bee improves most crop yields. Research shows that bee-pollinated fruits such as strawberries, grow bigger, redder and with fewer malformations. Honey bees play a significant role in the production of more than 150 food crops in the U.S., including apples, almonds, blueberries, cranberries, melons, pears, plums, and squash. Farmers realize about $20 billion a year in additional crop value from honey bee pollination.
In addition to bees, other insects such as butterflies and moths, as well as birds and bats, are also important pollinators. Even wasps, yellow jackets and flies pollinate. Butterflies and birds are attracted to brightly colored flowers, while moths and bats are attracted to pale flowers that are easier to see in low light.