Honeybees helping humanity

While weeding around my tomato plants the other day, I paused for a moment and marveled at the way their flowers almost magically develop into fruit.

Grasping a lemon-yellow flower between my fingers, I smiled and visualized the red, vine-ripened tomato the blossom would become one day.

This miraculous transformation from flower to fruit occurs through pollination–the transfer of pollen or male cells from the anther to the female cells on the stigma.  Wind pollinates tomatoes by shaking the flowers and transferring the pollen.  Sweet corn also relies on the wind for pollination, but only to catch airborne pollen on the silks.  Squash, like most vegetables, depends on insects for pollination.

One of the best insect pollinators known since ancient times is the honey bee which was introduced to North America by European settlers in the 1600s.  (Native Americans called these honey bees the “white man’s fly.”)  Honey bee pollination is not intentional, just a result of the insect’s search for its favorite foods–pollen and nectar.  While the honey bee scrambles around inside the flower, searching for the small oasis of nectar in the nectaries or scooping up pollen from the anthers, pollen from its body lodges onto the sticky surface of the stigma.

Although the honey bee’s way of life and work ethic make it an ideal pollinator, it is the insect’s physical makeup that results in efficient pollination.  The honeybee is to flowers what Tiger Woods is to golf.

Its large compound eyes offer a wide range of vision and sensitive antennae, and its tongue acts either as a spoon for licking up small drops or a pump to rapidly draw in large quantities of nectar or water.  The honeybee’s hairy body collects pollen as it dashes from blossom to blossom.  Combs and brushes on the legs are used to remove the pollen from the flowers or from the body and stuffed into “pollen baskets” in the legs.

For honeybees, pollination is just a matter of survival.  But for Americans, the pollination of millions of acres of crops by honeybees translates to dollars. In South Carolina, commercially grown crops that depend on honey bees for pollination include apples, blueberries, cantaloupes, cucumbers, squash, strawberries, and watermelons.

Those impressive figures show how important a role the honey bee plays in agriculture.  However, honey bees and their brethren–wild bees, bumble bees, and others–assume a critical role in nature.  They pollinate the flowers of many seed- and fruit-bearing plants which are cherished by wildlife.

So, you can see how devastating a shortage of domestic and wild honey bees could be.  In the past 10 years, tracheal mites and varroa mites have greatly reduced the honey bee population.  Fortunately, these pests can be controlled by beekeepers.  But the widespread use of pesticides toxic to bees also has reduced their numbers.  Most bee poisonings occur when bees visit flowers that were recently treated with an insecticide.

Home gardeners can help protect honeybees.  When using insecticides that control a broad range of insects, apply the material when bees aren’t actively foraging in the garden.  It may mean making your applications very early in the morning or late in the evening.  Don’t forget to always read and follow the label directions.

Thinking about the reduced number of honeybees and seeing the blooms on my squash, cucumbers, peppers, and watermelons, I wondered about the future of this year’s crop.  What if there wasn’t sufficient honeybee pollination?  Wouldn’t I be reduced to scurrying from blossom to blossom with a cotton-tipped swab, daubing tiny pollen grains on the impatient stigmas?  It might work, but I’m no Tiger Woods of the blooms.  When it comes to pollination, I’d rather have it done by an expert.

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