Pollen Specks

Yesterday, I saw the first pollen of the year carried by bees in our area.  It’s almost May! Local bees have been without fresh pollen for over six months.  The pollen specks which I saw were pitifully specky. If you have trouble seeing corbiculated pollen in the photo above, just look where the arrow is pointing. It’s not an impressive meal for a hungry mob, but even a little fresh pollen is as good as gold for desperate bees at this time of year.

I was visiting friends about fifteen minutes from my home, just a bit west of Calgary, on the beautiful Tsuu t’ina Nation.  The land is slightly higher in elevation and closer to the Rockies so it can be a tad cooler than my backyard. It was early evening, we had just finished poking through my friends’ hives, doing a quick status check. I didn’t see any new pollen stored in the broodnests, but after we closed up the boxes, we spotted the dribs, drabs, and specks of pollen which you see above. The beekeepers whom I visited had been feeding a pollen supplement. Protein from a box is essential at this time of year, but nothing beats natural pollen from wildflowers. It was great to witness bees heisting these tawny harbingers of spring. It filled me with hope that our winter is ending.

In our area, at this time of year, the pollen is mostly from crocus and willow. That’s what brightens the bare brown desolation of April in Alberta.  Snow still chills the ground in icy mounds which litter our landscape, yet honey bees have found some food!

It’s been a cruelly long winter, but honey bee colonies have an advantage over other pollinators. Honey bees can fly any day of the year that the temperature is slightly mild. December, January, February… May. It doesn’t matter. Give them some sun and ten degrees above frost and honey bees spew forth upon the landscape, every one of them a pillaging little Attila.

I was reminded of the bees’ ability to fly early in the season when I saw a Washington Post piece a few days ago. The Post people had interviewed Dr Andony Melathopoulos, a friend of mine who does scientist stuff at Oregon State. Here’s a bit from the newspaper:

“Honeybees are among the first of the bee species to become active each year,” said Andony Melathopoulos, a bee specialist with Oregon State University Extension.

“Unlike all the other bees in the U.S., they winter as a colony so they can jump into action as soon as it gets warm” — approximately 55 degrees Fahrenheit, he said. “In the middle of the winter, all the rest of the bees are in some form of dormancy, either in the ground or in hollow stems.”

Thinking about this, the ecology seems rather puzzling. For millennia, North America had no honey bees. The continent’s native bees (bumblebees, masons, ground-nesting miners, wood-boring carpenters, hole-inhabiting leafcutters) start their season with a single, dazed queen and no workers. These bees become active later in the spring than honey bees. Our honey bees occupy nests of thousands, staying warm and active in their cluster even on cold days. In our area, they survive as a clustered, cloistered family for two hundred wintery days. When a mild spring afternoon finally arrives, hundreds of foragers race out to exploit scattered tufts of willow and rare prairie crocus blossoms. This might be a week or two before the first native bees rouse from their slumber. Honey bees have an advantage when it comes to a willow or crocus blossom. They jump it the moment it smiles.

So, the puzzle is this – why would North America have flowers blooming but not have native bees adapted to be active when they first open?  This seems a rare mismatch of nature.

Perhaps it’s because willow and croci are also native to Europe (where most of our honey bees developed). Maybe at the bidding of some long-quieted breeze, seeds of those plants drifted to North America, ages before the honey bee followed. The plants were stuck with their early-blooming habits even though North American native bees weren’t active early in the spring to pollinate them. Or maybe it’s possible that neither willow nor crocus absolutely require bees to reproduce but instead (like prairie grass and many other plants) they are self-pollinators, married to the wind.  In that case, honey bees are just grabbing something that’s not really being offered to them.

It is also possible that the flowers are being genetically manipulated by our recent hoards of honey bees. Maybe, in the years since our bees arrived, the earliest willows get a pollination advantage and it’s their offspring that encroach more and more on the landscape. Perhaps, in bygone days, willow and croci were more attuned to the native bees.  I don’t know the answer, but hopefully someone smarter than I will read this and explain the little puzzle to me.

That is I, on the right. And that’s snow on the ground behind my friend and me.
Yet, the amazing honey bees found pollen in the barrens!

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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6 Responses to Pollen Specks

  1. Croci clone themselves like many plants that grow from bulbs (or are they corms?). Willows also reproduce readily from broken branches that fall onto moist soil. I think they both would carry on unaffected without honeybees.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Thanks! We used to start willows on the farm by poking branches in wet ground. I didn’t know about the croci. But both have flowers that give pollen and nectar. That adaptation would be to attract pollinators. That’s my puzzle…


  2. Erik says:

    Great piece, Ron.

    Another option discussed by Dave Goulson in A Sting in the Tale, based on some research he did in Tasmania and New Zealand, is that the presence of Honey Bees (or European bumble bees in Goulson’s research) may favor plants that evolved or were transplanted from Europe. European bees promote European plants and varieties, and over the centuries they become more and more prevalent across the landscape.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Thanks, Erik. That’s along the path I was thinking, too, but I’ve not read Goulson’s book. Thanks for mentioning it. Honey bees in this area are a recent arrival – the early 1900s. I’m not sure if the plants would have evolved much in a hundred years, but maybe it’s possible.


      • Erik says:

        I suspect it is less evolution and more favoritism. We know some of these plants bloom early if they came from Europe, and when they do honey bees are there to pollinate them so they successfully propagate. Later bloomers have more competition so are less likely to be pollinated. Hence the early bloomers are more likely to expand, even over short time periods. So not really evolution and more the collaboration of early bloomers and honey bees.

        By the way, our croci came and went in February. The fruit trees are winding down and everything else is getting ready to burst. Of course, we’ll be in a dearth in a couple months and the total nectar collected in your area will probably exceed ours.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ron Miksha says:

        That sounds right. We don’t need to expect that the plants ‘evolved’ to bloom early within a hundred years, but rather their success was influenced by ‘favoritism’ – that might explain it.

        Liked by 1 person

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