How Do Bees Transfer Pollen Between Flowers?

A bee on a bright flower collecting pollen

Bees play a vital role in fertilizing flowers worldwide. As they go about their business of collecting pollen and nectar, they also kickstart the pollination process.

This article examines how bees transfer pollen between flowers and their role in crop fertilization.

How does a bee transfer pollen from one flower to the next?

Worker bees foraging for nectar or honey may visit thousands of flowers on a sunny day. As they move from one flower stamen to the next collecting food, pollen gets stuck to their legs and moved between female and male flowers.

Although unintentional, the bee plays a significant role in fertilizing flowers on the world’s fruit and vegetable crops.

How evolution has helped bees pollinate plants

Plants and bees have a relationship known as mutualism, where each relies on the other to survive. Bees need a food source, and plants require cross-pollination. Over time, they have evolved to make pollen collection and transfer a seamless process.

Evolution of the bee  

  • Fine leg hairs assist with picking up the tiny pollen particles; they remain stuck to these follicles rather than falling off before reaching the next flower.
  • Honey bees have pollen baskets that help them transfer this food source back to the hive. But some excess pollen will still get shaken off as it visits future flowers.
  • Learn more about the anatomy of honey bees here.
A close up of a honey bee showing the pollen sac and pollen dust sprinkled over her body
Bees unintentionally pollinate flowers while foraging.

Evolution of the flower

  • Plants have flowers that are the right size and shape that appeals to bees.
  • Pollen-covered anthers and the stigma are positioned near the top of flowers to attract the bee and facilitate germination.
  • Flowers grow in specific colors to appeal to a bee.

Do bees intentionally pollinate flowers?

Worker bees collect pollen and nectar as food sources, then fly back to their colony. The pollination process is an unintentional “by-product” that flowers take advantage of. An insect’s brain focuses on the survival of its species rather than helping plants thrive.

Is pollen transfer between plants important?

Plants would die out if they couldn’t effectively transfer pollen between male and female plants. Bees are essential in helping pollinate 80% of flowering plants, including food crops.

As bee populations decrease worldwide, researchers are looking at alternatives to bees, such as mechanical drone-style pollinators. However, these are less effective and will increase the farmer’s costs. That means consumers will pay more at the checkout.

What are the best flowers for attracting bees?

Borage: A small shrub with star-shaped blue flowers.

Calendula: Large yellow and orange blooms that have multiple layers.

Daisies: Their flat shape makes pollen collection super-easy for foraging insects.

Daffodils: Bright yellow and orange petals appeal to bees.

Lavender: Popular with pollinators due to their color, scent, long bloom time, and high levels of nectar.

Sage (salvia): Not to be confused with regular sage used in cooking, this is a hardy ornamental with purple and blue flowers.

Snapdragons: Offer a pungent scent throughout the day, with many colors that attract attention.

Sunflowers: Contain high levels of pollen and nectar. Check out our guide, to discover the best sunflowers for bees.

A picture of a sunflower with a bee collecting pollen from it.
Sunflowers are a favorite with honey bees.

Flowers aren’t the only way to provide bees with pollen and nectar. Check out our list of the best trees for bees. If you don’t have room for planting trees, consider these excellent varieties of clover to attract bees.

What plants do bees pollinate?

Bees pollinate a diverse mix of plants globally, including over 130 fruit and vegetable varieties. Vegetables like potatoes, onions, celery, beets, broccoli, and cabbage all benefit from bees. Source.

Fruit like kiwis, watermelons, tangerines, mangos, and apricots also utilize bees. In some industries, like apple farming, beehives are transported into the orchards to encourage pollination each season.

Commonly asked questions

Do male or female bees transfer pollen between flowers?

Foraging female worker bees are responsible for moving pollen between blossoms. Males drones and the queen bee generally only leave their hive to mate.

Flower pollen vs. bee pollen – what’s the difference?

Flower pollen is naturally created by plants when their flowers bloom, while bee pollen is a mix of pollen, nectar, honey, enzymes, and beeswax secretions. Pure flower pollen is non-allergenic; bee pollen is considered to have many health benefits but can cause allergic reactions.     

What’s the difference between pollen and nectar?

Produced by the stamen, pollen is a fine powder found on male flowers and is necessary to fertilize female flowers. Nectar is a sweet, viscous secretion that attracts pollinators like butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees.

Bees need both food sources to survive, using pollen for protein and other valuable nutrients, while nectar provides energy and is the key ingredient in honey making.

How many flowers do bees pollinate daily?

The number of flowers a bee visits daily will vary depending on weather conditions, quality of forage, and the time of year. Foraging peaks in spring and summer when foragers may visit 3,000-5,000 flowers in one day.

Keep in mind that bees won’t successfully pollinate every flower. Native honey bees are the best pollinators in the United States.

What would happen if there were no bees?

Without bees, there would be a dramatic effect on our ecosystem. Fewer seeds would set, with a much lower plant reproduction success rate. Massive food shortages and famines would almost certainly result without a viable replacement for bees. Some crops like corn and wheat rely on wind for pollination and would be less affected.

A bee collecting pollen from an apple blossom.
Apple farmers rely heavily on bee colonies for pollination of their fruit trees.

Interesting research about bee pollination

We compiled relevant pollination research and summarized it below. Links are included to the full research.

Bee pollination improves crop quality, shelf life and commercial value.

Klatt Björn K., Holzschuh Andrea, Westphal Catrin, Clough Yann, Smit Inga, Pawelzik Elke and Tscharntke Teja 2014

Pollination improves the yield of most crop species and contributes to one-third of global crop production, but comprehensive benefits, including crop quality, are still unknown.

Longer shelf life reduced fruit loss by at least 11%. This accounts for 0.32 billion US$ of the 1.44 billion US$ provided by bee pollination. The total value equates to 2.90 billion US$ made with strawberry sales in the European Union in 2009.

The researchers results suggest that all together, bee pollination contributed US$ 1.12 billion to a total of US$ 2.90 billion made with commercial selling of 1.5 million tonnes of strawberries in the European Union (E.U.) in 2000. But so far without consideration of the monetary value provided by enhanced shelf life.

Higher firmness resulting from bee pollination potentially elongated the shelf life of strawberry fruits by about 12 hours compared with wind pollination and by more than 26 hours compared with self-pollination.

The production, mediated by pollination, occurs in several other pollination-dependent fruits and vegetables. This highlights the major importance of animal pollination for crop quality in other crops, in addition to strawberries.

The researchers’ study suggests that comprehensive analyses of the benefits of pollination for animal-dependent crops, which comprise 70% of all major crop species, will increase estimates of the economic value of this ecosystem service.

Read the research here.

Khalifa, S.A.M.; Elshafiey, E.H.; Shetaia, A.A.; El-Wahed, A.A.A.; Algethami, A.F.; Musharraf, S.G.; AlAjmi, M.F.; Zhao, C.; Masry, S.H.D.; Abdel-Daim, M.M.; Halabi, M.F.; Kai, G.; Al Naggar, Y.; Bishr, M.; Diab, M.A.M.; El-Seedi, H.R. Insects 2021, 12, 688.

Pollination is vital in maintaining the natural balance of ecosystems and is the cornerstone of crop production. It provides a link between agriculture and the cycle of life.

Solitary bees play a significant role in pollination. It has been demonstrated that wild bees contribute US $3251/hectare for their pollination services worldwide, seven out of ten of which are solitary.

Bee pollination provides a wide variety of benefits to humanity. It contributes to areas like food processing, raw materials, medicines, and the maintenance of biodiversity and environmental protections.

5–8% of all global crop production would be lost without the pollination services provided by bees. This loss would necessitate changes in the human diet and the expansion of agricultural lands to resolve shortfalls in crop production.

Bees face many challenges that can distort their lives, including shifts in land use, climate change, pesticides, genetics, and cultivation management.

In the U.S.A., the pollination activity of honey bees is well recognized for three species of crops: cucumber (Cucumis sativus Linn), for which there has been a 10% increase in yield and the number of colonies has increased from 40,000 to 45,000; cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccos Linn), which experienced an increase in yield from 3.7 million in 1989 to 5.4 million in 1998, and pear (Pyrus communis Linn), which exhibited a 7% increase in fruit size and a net income increase of $400 per hectare.

Using insecticides and pesticides damages human health because crops and bee products become contaminated with agrochemicals that humans must eventually ingest.

Read the research here.

Mario Vallejo-Marín, How and why do bees buzz? Implications for buzz pollination, Journal of Experimental Botany, Volume 73, Issue 4, 24 February 2022, Pages 1080–1092.

Buzz pollination encompasses the evolutionary convergence of specialized floral morphologies and pollinator behavior in which bees use vibrations to remove pollen.

Floral buzzes are one of several vibrations bees produce using their thoracic muscles.

The researcher reviews how bees can produce these different vibrations and discusses the implications of this mechanistic understanding for buzz pollination.

They propose that bee buzzes can be categorized according to their mode of production and deployment into:

  • Thermogenic, which generates heat with little mechanical vibration.
  • Flight buzzes, combined with wing deployment and thoracic vibration.
  • Non-flight buzzes in which the thorax vibrates, but the wings remain mostly folded and include floral, defense, mating, communication, and nest-building buzzes.

The researcher hypothesizes that the characteristics of non-flight buzzes, including floral buzzes, can be modulated. Modifying the biomechanical properties of the thorax through the activity of auxiliary muscles, may change the rate of activation of the indirect flight muscles and modify flower handling behavior.

Read the research here.

Summing up

Fertilized plants result from flower pollination, a process that relies heavily on pollinators like bees. As these insects go about their daily lives collecting nectar or pollen, they unintentionally transfer pollen between flowers.

Bees and blooms go hand in hand in nature; without their co-existence, the earth would look very different.

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