It has often been said that bees are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we eat. Most crops grown for their fruits (including vegetables such as squash, cucumber, tomato and eggplant), nuts, seeds, fiber (such as cotton), and hay (alfalfa grown to feed livestock), require pollination by insects.
Pollinating insects also play a critical role in maintaining natural plant communities and ensuring the production of seeds in most flowering plants. Pollination is the transfer of pollen from the male parts of a flower to the female parts of a flower of the same species, which results in the fertilization of plant ovaries and the production of seeds. The main insect pollinators, by far, are bees, and while European honey bees are the best known and widely managed pollinators, there are also hundreds of other species of bees, mostly solitary ground-nesting species, that contribute some level of pollination services to crops and are very important in natural plant communities.
Why are bees good pollinators?
Bees make excellent pollinators because most of their life is spent collecting pollen, a source of protein that they feed to their developing offspring. When a bee lands on a flower, the hairs all over the bees’ body attract pollen grains through electrostatic forces. Stiff hairs on their legs enable them to groom the pollen into specialized brushes or pockets on their legs or body, and then carry it back to their nest. Individual bees tend to focus on one kind of flower at a time, which means it is more likely that pollen from one flower will be transferred to another flower of the same species by a particular bee. Many plants require this kind of pollen distribution, known as cross-pollination, in order to produce viable seeds. The business of collecting pollen requires a lot of energy, and so many flowers attract and also reward bees with nectar, a mixture of water and sugars produced by plants.
Where and how do bees live?
Most bee species dig nests in soil, while others utilize plants, either by boring holes in pithy plant stems or wood, or by nesting in galleries made by wood-boring beetles in trees or other preexisting cavities. Bumblebees are known to nest in abandoned rodent burrows and feral honey bees are known to nest in tree hollows. Bees use a variety of materials to build their nests. Most bees line their nest cells with a waxy material they produce themselves, but others use pieces of leaves, small pebbles mixed with resin from tree sap, or mud to form the cells in which they lay their egg.
Why do bees need flowers throughout the growing season?
Many bee species are solitary (each female produces offspring in her own nest) with only one generation of bees produced per year. However, other species nest communally (several females share a nest) or have elaborate social structures with the division of labor within the colony (usually with a single queen and many workers). These kinds of bees produce multiple generations per year. This means that bees that produce multiple generations each year need food resources (pollen and nectar) across most of the growing season to produce strong colonies. Providing plants in a landscape with overlapping bloom periods will help these bees survive and prosper.