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Vail Daily column: Bees, flowers benefit from symbiotic relationship

This photo of a busy bee allows us to see some of the nectar lines that guide bees in for a landing, enticing them to gather sweet nectar and pollinate the flower.
Rick Spitzer | Special to the Daily |

Hiking a trail that meanders through the brilliant reds, yellows, purples and oranges of emerging wildflowers, I feel a sense of wonder and awe. As I stop to enjoy the beauty of these blossoms, I hear the sound of a small bee buzzing by my ear. “Stay cool. Stay still. Stay calm,” I tell myself, but I feel that sense of wonder and awe fade into fear of being stung. Although I try to stay calm, I move away quickly. Honing in on my potential enemy, I see that it has landed on the very flower I was observing, and I can see clumps of yellow pollen on the bee’s hind legs. I recall that bees are not merely flying insects with stingers; they play a crucial role in the ecosystem and are incredibly important pollinators that are likely the cause of these beautiful blooms I enjoy each summer. My fear finally dissipates and the wonder and awe returns as I contemplate how interconnected everything in the natural world truly is. John Muir said, “When we try to pick anything out by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

The symbiotic relationship between bees and flowers is a perfect example of Muir’s interconnectedness. Both evolved during the Cretaceous Period of the Mesozoic Era (the era more commonly known for the rise and fall of the dinosaurs) and still rely heavily on one another to thrive and survive. Since the Cretaceous Period, at least 19,500 identified bee species have evolved worldwide, and 3,500 of them can be found in the United States. Colorado is home to 946 known bee species, which makes it the fifth state with the most diverse bee species population, behind California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah.

How does relationship work



So, how does this symbiotic relationship work? As we know, flowers require pollination to reproduce. Pollination is the transfer of pollen from the stamen (the male part) of the flower, to the female part, or ovary, on another plant of the same species. This spurs fertilization, which allows seeds to develop and the plant life cycle to continue. Sometimes wind or water can move pollen, but insects like bees are far more accurate and efficient pollinators as they travel around in search of a food source.

In order to attract these much needed pollinators, flowers produce a sweet, sugary substance called nectar. Many bee species require nectar for their food source, and some use it to create honey. As bees travel from one flower to the next in search of the nectar, they collect pollen grains on hairs covering their bodies through electrostatic forces. They groom the pollen onto pollen baskets on their legs and serve as a flying vehicle to deposit these grains on the next flower. Bees rely on their vision to find flowers. They can see a wide spectrum of color from ultra-violet to orange (although they do not see red). The flowers’ bright colors serve to advertise their sweet nectar to bees. Many of them also have ultra violet patches called nectar guides which serve as airport runways, guiding the bees in to the nectar jackpot.



Two Stomachs are better than one

Once bees locate the nectar, they extract it from the flower using a long, tube-shaped tongue, and store it in their crop, which is essentially an extra stomach. They can then return to their hive and deposit it. Sometimes it is converted into honey, which is the primary food source for bees in the winter months. Other times it is mixed with remaining pollen grains to create “bee bread,” which is fed to young bees in the larval stage to help them grow and develop.

Not only do bees and flowers benefit from this symbiotic relationship, but so do humans. We enjoy the honey produced by the bees as well as several fruits, vegetables and other foods created through the process of pollination. I have heard that one in every three bites we eat can be attributed to pollination by bees. So, the next time you go to swat at a bee buzzing in your ear, thank it first for beautiful bounty of flowers and food it provides.



Beth Markham, youth programs director at Walking Mountains Science Center, can be found biking the trails of Eagle County trying not to wreck while she observes the wildflowers around her.


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