Honeybee Biology

Pollinator Partnerships

“Now the first of December was covered in snow,
So was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston . . .”

There is only the spin of my tires on the road, an occasional squeak of wiper blades, and the whoosh of cars passing as I drive along the Mass Pike. Insistent flakes announce winter and these lyrics fill my head in the absence of any music, connecting moment to memory, even if it is a day shy of December 1st. Exiting south toward I-395 and through The Quiet Corner of northeastern Connecticut, the traffic dwindles and I let the song unwind in my brain, taking in the landscape that rolls by.

Two hawks pose on leafless branches, sitting tall and regal. I imagine them dressed in the saffron robes of Buddhist monks, meditative awareness turned inward, when in fact they are acutely aware of their surroundings and the possibility of a hapless rodent that might venture within striking distance.

In the tunnels created by the woods along the highway, it seems there is nothing for miles, just a ribbon of blacktop connecting one place to another. But at the crests of these undulating hills, I can look out past the highway signs and over the young trees to see the work of human hands on the land. Peering down exit ramps, there were convenience stores and gas stations; I imagine towns nestled further down the road, and sprawling commercial areas. Looking further out into the distant hills, the evidence of this fragmentation is softened by the veil of snow. Mostly leafless, the hardwoods stretch their limbs upward, golden spires of birch trees with leaves still hanging on reach through the gray. Evergreens lend a sense of life, though everything about these hills breathes at the slower pace of approaching winter.

In the same way that time expands and contracts on a long drive, I watch the road cuts rise up and fall away, playing with geologic time in my mind. Parts of the highway are carved into the earth, exposing the millennia in one sweep of the eye. The deep, deep past is at eye level and lifting my gaze to the top of the rock face, the present looms 60 feet up. This is topped by brave saplings, the dormant buds on the tips of their branches representing the future, when they will leaf out next spring. These rock layers are pages of geologic and biological history, to be read in order, bottom to top. When did the insects appear in these pages? Is there a glassine wing or a tiny fragment of an exoskeleton pressed between these layers of rock laid down in the Mesozoic Era?

Though insects first evolved 479 million years ago, along with the first land plants in the Paleozoic Era, most modern insect species originated about 345 million years ago. It wasn’t until the evolution of flowering plants 146 million years ago that plants and many insects, honeybees among them, formed a partnership that benefits both to this day. Flowers provide nectar and pollen for insects. In turn, insects help to ensure the next generation of so many of the flowering plants we know today by transferring pollen among flowers, allowing fertilization. That’s the simple story; interactions in the natural world are so much more intricately woven, with exceptions and variations galore. But the bottom line is we wouldn’t enjoy the diversity of plants we do today if it weren’t for pollinating insects.

 

Their visual world is full of runways, bulls-eyes, and landing strips, the intricate patterns of flower petals leading the way to the nectar and pollen. Since plants generally can’t move to find other plants when the call to make more of themselves arises, this is a definite advantage. They need pollinators.

A bee that lands and taxis down the runway to the nectar source brushes up against pollen-laden anthers, the male parts of the flower. Pollen is flower sperm, just sticky enough to cling to the legs of a roving insect. Once this insect has sipped its fill of nectar, it flies off in search of another flower which is more than likely the same species, given they are in the same area and that many flowers have specific bloom times. Taxiing down the runway again, it brushes up against more pollen and against the stigma, the female part of the flower. The stigma is sticky, grabbing pollen, which makes its way down through the stamen to the ovaries lying at its base.

The beauty of a flower gives way to the bounty of fruit, with seeds at its core to produce a new generation of plants. Going to seed, a term used by gardeners, is a direct result of pollination. Often a term associated with being spent, done, it is not at all. Plants that lie dormant this time of year, leafless and forlorn, are snapshots of the next generation. There is new life and energy in every seed. Not every plant is pollinated by insects; wind, water and other animals have their own plant partners. But some of our most beloved fruits, nuts and vegetables – almonds, apples, oranges, tomatoes, to name a few – are pollinated by honey bees and their relations. All these pollinators ask of a plant is a bit of nectar and pollen in return.

A gray pickup rumbles by, a Pest Control logo sprawled across its tailgate, with a bumblebee for embellishment. “Bees are not pests, they’re pollinators!” I grumble at its receding tailgate. “If anything, put a termite on your logo.” To be fair, even termites have their place in the grand scheme of things but it annoys me that so many people might get the wrong impression. Of course, wasps are also considered pests, but they’re pollinators as well. It’s all a matter of time and place. Out in an orchard, certain species of wasps work beside honey bees and bumblebees to move pollen from flower to flower so that the plant will bear the fruit that we eat. So do flesh flies. And butterflies. Even mosquitoes, beetles and hoverflies practice pollination. Some pollinators are more honored or at least better tolerated than others.

There are many accounts of how humans would be hard pressed to eat if it weren’t for pollinators. Mark L. Winston, author of Bee Time, points out that 65% of plant species currently inhabiting this planet require or benefit from bee pollination. “A world without bees would be almost impossible to contemplate and likely one in which we would never have evolved in the first place.” Imagine going back hundreds of millions of years to pre-flowering plant days – how dismal. No apples, no almonds, no blueberries, no zucchini. No tomatoes or basil to drizzle with olive oil; indeed, no olives. Not even leafy plants like lettuce which, if it has ever bolted in your garden patch, sends up flowers that seem especially attractive to bees. No clover, ryegrass, or fescue for beef or dairy cattle and therefore, no beef or dairy cattle. Oh, we could probably come up with a high-tech way to pollinate these plants but the cost of bringing fruits like avocados, apples and cherries to market would skyrocket. So would beef and dairy products.

Scientists are discovering that the decline in bee populations, both managed honeybees and wild bees, is due to many interacting causes and they’re pouring their efforts into these problems, on a grass-roots level and a national level. On this deserted stretch of highway when I look out into the stillness of snow falling on so many trees, it’s hard to believe that the earth is in such dire straits. But I don’t live in Beijing, or Antarctica, or amidst the wildfires of the west coast. One can’t get too cozy in one’s cocoon.

Turning into my driveway at the end of my trip, my apiary stands empty. The sad news is that I lost my last hive recently, the rain-soaked fall and probably other factors proving too much for the colony. An empty apiary looks disheartening. But it also begs to be filled come spring, so I’ll do my research and order 2 more hives. For starts.

As a hobby beekeeper, I know that even two small hives can make a difference. And that’s the unique thing about beekeepers. The vast majority of us think this way, whether we manage 2 hives or 200. We’re not willing to let pollinators languish. It’s not just for selfish reasons, because we like almonds or avocados. Or honey. It’s because these tiny creatures have found their way into our hearts and scientific minds, and they challenge us to help them overcome the diseases that plague them, and to be their advocate in finding ways to thrive on this human-dominated Earth.

By the way, I just read a very comprehensive article on beekeeping duties for the month of December posted by Beekeeping 365. https://sassafrasbeefarm.wordpress.com/2018/12/01/midlands-beekeeping-calendar-for-the-month-of-december-2
I especially like #10 and #14. Oh, and Happy Birthday, Lorenzo Langstroth!

2 thoughts on “Pollinator Partnerships

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