Who doesn’t love a beautiful flower? For centuries, people have touted flowers as symbols of love and beauty. Many people admire flowers for their colors and fragrances. Certain flowers may also bring up memories of your first date with your significant other or the time you helped your dad grow tulips. However, humans are not the only species that are attracted to flowers. The relationships between flowers and pollinators, such as bees, are essential for both animals and plants, but have you ever wondered how bees choose which flowers to pollinate?
Bees choose flowers for many reasons, including visibility and access. For instance, bees are drawn towards bright colors, and they like flowers that are open or have flat tubes. Plants may blossom and bloom at different times, so there are some flowers bees do not frequent simply because they aren’t open during the day. However, looks and ease of pollination are by no means the only reasons bees choose particular flowers.
Bees are intelligent creatures, and they remember which flowers have the best or most pollen. Consequently, they may consistently visit the same locations and feed on the same species of plants, as long as they’re full of pollen and don’t have anything detracting. It likely helps that bees can “smell spatially,” using their antennas to not only identify smells but also determine from which direction they are coming. Bees tend to be very social and sometimes follow each other’s lead unless they know their friends are heading towards trouble.
Smell and taste can also determine which flowers bees visit. Specifically, they tend to like minty and sweet scents but may snub their antennae at pollen that smells or tastes bitter. In fact, in a study to determine how bees choose flowers, they were three times more likely to visit flowers laced with sucrose, or sugar, than those laced with quinine, a bitter chemical.
In addition to using memory, smell, and taste, bees may rely on electricity to find and assess flowers. When bees are in flight, the friction from the wind makes them positively charged, while flowers are usually negatively charged. Electricity allows bees to not only find flowers but determine a flower’s shape based on the shape of a flower’s electric field. This could help them find familiar flowers or determine which plants have the best landing and feeding spots. The electrical charge of a flower may change as pollinators land and feed, so the amount of electrical charge could also help bees determine which flowers were recently visited and may no longer have pollen. However, flowers that need few pollinations, such as tulips, sometimes evolve to have a constant electrical charge, tricking bees into thinking they have pollen even when they do not.
Since the average bee visits one thousand flowers a day, it is clear their feeding habits aren’t as picky as those of some animals. However, they are smarter and more adaptable than some people may realize, and sensory appeal, memory, “peer pressure,” and many other factors go into choosing the best flowers. The next time you see a patch of blossoming flowers, thank the bees; they work their “bee”-hinds off to keep flowers in bloom!
Written by: Katrina Thomas. Katrina has a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology from Meredith College and is pursuing an Environmental Educator Certification through EENC.