Set your meetings, phone calls and emails aside, at least for the next several minutes. That’s because today you’re a bee.
It’s time to leave your hive, or your underground burrow, and forage for pollen. Pollen is the stuff that flowers use to reproduce. But it’s also essential grub for you, other bees in your hive and your larvae. Once you’ve gathered pollen to take home, you or another bee will mix it with water and flower nectar that other bees have gathered and stored in the hive. But how do you decide which flowers to approach? What draws you in?
In a review published last week in the journal Functional Ecology, researchers asked: What is a flower like from a bee’s perspective, and what does the pollinator experience as it gathers pollen? And that’s why we’re talking to you in the second person: to help you understand how bees like you, while hunting for pollen, use all of your senses — taste, touch, smell and more — to decide what to pick up and bring home.
Maybe you’re ready to go find some pollen. But do you even know where to look?
If you’re a honeybee, keep an eye on how your fellow hive members dance when they return from their latest pollen collection outing. They’ll give you clues to where to find a good pollen score. Watch as a fellow bee moves in the shape of a figure eight and waggles only where the eight crosses: The angle of that waggle tells you in which direction to head out from the hive. The speed of the waggle tells you how far to go. But honeybees don’t just dance for the good stuff, so you can’t necessarily trust your hive mates’ recommendations. When pollen stores are low, they’ll dance for substances like potato starch, too. Yuck!
Your sense of smell is so powerful you can use it to learn about and remember pollens. You prefer the scent of flowers with pollen, especially ones you’ve experienced before. This suggests you can detect pollen at a distance, and remember its odor, too. But the pollen’s odor alone is not enough. You’ll probably go for a bouquet of odors, which you can learn if rewarded with sugar in the lab. Scientists are still trying to figure out if you can smell the amino acids that make up the pollen, and if you can tell which flowers have more pollen by scent alone. You can do that with nectar from far away — by detecting the smell of other bees that were there before you, you know not to waste your time with a depleted energy source. Can you do the same thing with pollen?
Would you like to know more about pollen and nectar? We’ve been discussing it a lot.
Bees like you have hunted for pollen seemingly forever. You took it from plants and moved it around between them. This helped the plants make fruit, and reproduce. At the same time, bees like you used the pollen, packed with protein and fats, to nourish yourselves, develop sex organs and feed your young. Moving it to other plants wasn’t your intention.
But the plants may have been letting you get away with too much pollen, hindering their ability to reproduce in greater numbers. During the Late Cretaceous Period, when plants and animals were dying off all over the planet, including the dinosaurs, the plants adapted ways to limit how much pollen bees ate. One of their adaptations was to produce nectar. It rewarded bees when they visited flowers. It had sugar and amino acids that bees used for energy, and they would eat that instead of pollen in some cases.
For years, many scientists focused their study of bees on how they gathered nectar. They found that bees learned to make judgments about nectar, like which flowers kept the sweetest juice flowing the most often, and remembered those flowers by different characteristics, like their scent or their color.
But while nectar’s sugars and amino acids help bees keep moving, pollen’s protein and fat are essential to the reproductive cycles of you and your fellow bees. That’s one reason scientists recently took a closer look at how you gather pollen, and why we’re following you on your pollen-gathering rounds right now.