Most of us have heard that bees are important for our ecosystem, but just how important are they?
Jabulani Ranger Duncan Bothma gives us his guide’s view, as we drive through the bush looking out over the vegetation all around us:
“Bees support the growth of trees, flowers, and other plants, which serve as food and shelter for creatures large and small. In turn, trees provide oxygen to breathe and every living organism needs some form of oxygen.
“Most of us think of honey when we think of bees, and the majority of us have eaten honey at some point in our lives – even if not purposefully, as honey is used in the making of many of the things we eat and drink. But this is where my work as a Ranger ends and I hand it over to our amazing chefs, as they can give some great insights on delicious snacks and drinks you can make with honey.”
“Many bee species have black and yellow coloration, as often shown in cartoons or drawings of the little pollinators,” Duncan adds on our drive to find bees out in the reserve, “but there are in fact also many species that do not boast these expected hues. Bees actually come in a variety of colours, including green, blue, red and black. Some are striped, and some even have a metallic sheen. Bees also range in size, from large carpenter bees and bumble bees to the tiny Perdita Minima bee, which is less than two millimeters long.”
“Like all insects, a bee’s body is divided into three parts: a head with two antennae, a thorax with six legs, and an abdomen. All bees have branched hairs somewhere on their bodies and two pairs of wings. Only female bees have stingers (which are modified ovipositors, organs originally used to lay eggs).”
We stop to look at a thriving hive in our reserve and all its little residents…
Wild bees species live on every continent except Antarctica. There are over 20 000 bee species worldwide, including the honey bee, which originated in Eurasia and has been imported around the globe as a domesticated species. There are 2755 bee species in sub-Saharan Africa, about a third of which occur in South Africa.
Plants are vital for all life on Earth, and just as essentially, pollinators like bees are the key link in the reproduction process of plants. The first step in pollination is all about attracting a mate.
The pollinator (bees, birds, bats or butterflies for instance) takes pollen grains, the male germ cell of a plant, to a flower and the pollen makes its connection with the stigma, the female reproductive part of the same species of plant.
The plant’s secreted nectar provides a delicious and concentrated food source, from those tucked-away special glands in its blossom, for the pollinator to feed on. The pollinator rummages around inside in search of this sweet fuel, while rubbing against the pollen. This gold dust attaches to different parts of the pollinator’s body so that when the pollinator visits another blossom, it transfers the grains onto the next stigma. At the stigma, the pollen grain grows a little pollen tube down the style or stalk, into that ovary with its eggs in waiting. Here, the pollen and the egg make a baby… in the form of a seed. The creation of new life.
Depending on the plant species, a flower can produce male, female, or both structures. Pollination can also occur within the same flower.
So how do you attract your bee to the party as a flower?
Petals act as a landing strip for the attendant pollinator. According to the Smithsonian, in the case of a snapdragon, the bee’s weight causes the flower’s stamen to swing down and dust the bee with pollen. Some plants’ petals have clever little lines or other marks to guide the pollinator to its nectar.
The flower’s scent also helps to lure a pollinator. Like the sweet smell of honeysuckle. Each plant has its own partner pollinator, adapted to work together in perfectly designed ways, to attract the right mate for the right environment. As a flower, your own unique appearance also calls special attention from your desired suitors. Bees are attracted to blue and violet flowers for instance. Flowers pollinated by animals who search for food at night are often pale so to be more visible in the dim light.
Birds or bats carry pollen in their feathers or hair while bees and butterflies have bristles on their legs, head, and other body parts. You may have seen, while looking deeper into nature, honeybees with orange-gold sacks on their legs. These act as tiny baskets to collect pollen and take it back home to the hive, where a whole other incredible process occurs for the creation of honey and food for the bee queendom and nursery. Butterflies use their long proboscis to drink nectar from tubular flowers, and “accidentally” acquire a little dusting of pollen on the proboscis or their head.
Primates like lemurs also act as pollinators in some parts of the world, as well as Australian possums, tree-dwelling rodents and the gecko lizard. Many often-overlooked animals play a much more vital role on Earth than we first imagine.
The survival of many plants depends on these pollinator partnerships, which have developed by adapting to their environments, connecting certain plants with certain animal pollinators. Meaning that the extinction of one can be dangerous for the survival of the other.
Globally, the Smithsonian states, animals pollinate more than three-fourths of the staple crop plants that people eat. Scientists estimate that one out of every three bites of food we take is due to the successful animal-plant pollination system. Consider that with the next bite or sip of something delicious… Consider the incredible life on Earth that bees and their fellow insects and winged friends enable and give us.