Watching a plant grow is a gardener’s most fulfilling pleasure. We plant a seed and a short time later it begins to poke through the surface of the dirt. From there we can mark its progress as every day it gets taller, fuller and stronger.
Sometimes, though, a fruiting plant starts to grow flowers…and nothing else. Remarkably, this is because a number of fruits we eat every day have adapted over millions of years alongside animals and insects to the point where they can’t actually reproduce without intervention. Perhaps the most prolific insects when it comes to helping those plants out are honey bees.
To understand the relationship between honey bees and plants, we have to start at the beginning: a seed. A seed has everything that a seedling needs to grow before it reaches sunlight, and when subjected to the right combination of heat and moisture, it will return to life and begin to set roots.
When the seedling becomes a fully grown plant that takes its energy from the sun, it will eventually create flowers, which indicates that it’s ready to reproduce. Every flower has two different parts—the stamens and the pistil, or male and female parts. Stamens produce pollen, and pollen can pollinate the pistil. Only when this happens will a fruit grow from the base of the flower.
But the vast majority of flowers, even though they have both parts, can’t pollinate themselves.
And that’s where honey bees come in.
Flowers have evolved to be brightly coloured and to smell sweet to attract pollinators who drink the nectar or eat the pollen. In the case of the honey bee, pollen is a major source of food for the whole hive. A worker honey bee only forages for a third of its life. To get pollen to the hive, a foraging honey bee will collect the pollen and carry it with them on their legs.
When a honey bee visits many different flowers in a single trip, that pollen brushes against the pistils, and pollination takes place.
Without pollinators like honey bees, there would be no fruit. And without fruit, there would be no seeds. They have a relationship, a delicate balance.
And it’s a balance we all rely upon for some of the foods we love to eat, like cucumbers, pumpkins, cherries, and apples.