How Do Bees Transfer Pollen Between Flowers?

A bee flying through the air transferring pollen between flowers

Bees play a vital role in fertilizing flowers in the United States and around the world. As they go about their business of collecting pollen and nectar, bees also kickstart the pollination process. In this article, we’ll look at 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 will 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 major role in fertilizing flowers on the world’s fruit and vegetable crops.

A close up of a honey bee showing the pollen sac and pollen dust sprinkled over her body
Bees unintentionally pollinate flowers while foraging.

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.

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 a food source and then fly back to their colony. The pollination process is an unintentional “by-product” that flowers take advantage of. An insect’s brain is focused 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 play an essential role in helping pollinate 80% of flowering plants. Many of the crops that humans use for consumption rely on the use of bees.

As bee populations decrease throughout the world, researchers are looking at alternatives to bees, such as mechanical drone-style pollinators. However, these are not as effective and will increase the farmer’s costs as well as the price we pay at the checkout. 

What are the best flowers for attracting bees?

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

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

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

Daffodils: Their bright yellow and orange shades appeal to bees.

Lavender: A popular choice for bees due to their color, scent, long bloom time, and high levels of nectar.

Sage (salvia): Not to be confused with regular sage we use in cooking, this is a hardy specimen that’s a larger ornamental with purple and blue flowers. 

Snapdragons: Offer a pungent scent throughout the day and their multitude of colors attract attention.

Sunflowers: Contain high levels of pollen and nectar which the honey bee loves. Check out our guide which looks at 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 are responsible for pollinating a huge variety of plants globally, including over 130 varieties of fruit and vegetable. 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?

It is the foraging female worker bees who 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 that is found on male flowers and is necessary to fertilize female flowers. Nectar is a sweet, viscous secretion used to attract pollinators like butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees. Bees need both food sources to survive, using pollen for protein and other useful nutrients while nectar provides energy. 

How many flowers do bees pollinate daily?

The number of flowers a bee visits each day will vary depending on factors like weather conditions and the time of year. In spring and summer, bees are in honey-producing mode, so foragers will visit 3,000-5,000 flowers in one day. Of course, they won’t successfully pollinate every flower visited, but they still bring a lot to the table. 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. Far fewer seeds would set, with a much lower reproduction success rate in plants. Without a viable replacement for bees, massive food shortages and famines would almost certainly result. 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.

Summing up

Fertilized plants are the result of 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, and without their co-existence, the earth would look a very different place.

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