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Bee basics: On pollination

Apr 1st, 2015 | Category: Animals, Features, Skills

How it works and why it’s necessary

by Bruce Vilders

The youngest, and by far the smallest, of the young girls sitting in the class looked only slightly intimidated. She had been ‘snuck in’ by her older, and larger friends, in the hopes of getting past the stated age requirements. Stella was young but bright-eyed and ready to learn. Could she handle the subject matter? No small thing when we’re talking botany, plant parts, fertilization and nothing short of ‘the birds and the bees.”



The class itself was billed as an introduction to beekeeping and pollination for girls to be held at the Food Co-op in Mount Vernon (the following week a class for boys would be held). I had put some requirements on those thinking of registering. Ages 11-15, interested in nature and “wanting to help save the world.” Seven young girls, ready to do just that, showed up on a Saturday morning.

Why teach about pollination? And how to emphasize the crucial role that bees and other pollinators play? Do you teach plant parts (which sounds a little boring), growth responses to light? Genetics? The mass dying-off of bees, bats and birds? And, as the instructor, could I keep my strong biases against toxic pesticides/herbicides in check? That answers would turn out to be four yeses and a distinct no.

I’ve been a beekeeper for quite some time, getting my first hives in the mid-70s, and, since retiring as a professional educator, have built up a small back-yard pollination business. I find, even after all these years, that the more I learn about honey bees, the more I realize how little I really know. It’s been a fascinating learning curve and, at the same time, very humbling.

But I do know one thing for sure. And that is we need to get our young people enthused about saving the pollinators, for assuredly it will be they that will inherit the planet we pass on to them. And they learn from us for good or ill.

So what is pollination, or more exact, cross-pollination by way of the honey bee? How does it work, why is it necessary and why does it even occur in the first place?

Stick with me here. I’ll try to make this painless.

Start to think of it this way: Plants can’t move. They are kinda stuck where they are. Yet they need to somehow get their seeds fertilized so that they can reproduce. After all, if plants (or animals, us for that matter) don’t reproduce then whole species disappear. So somehow, plants (we’re talking Angiosperms here, flowering plants) need to attract something that CAN move.

Now, let me interject something here that is crucial to know. The seeds are already in the plant. The plant creates them. The process of pollination does not create seeds, it is about fertilizing the seeds. Once fertilized, the seeds can reproduce themselves, often by creating fruit to house the seeds. Let me take a side step here in a way of analogy. When chickens are born they have all the eggs they’ll ever have already inside them, hundreds of tiny eggs attached near their spine. Those eggs, much like seeds in a plant, can and will develop on their own. But those chicken eggs can never develop into another bird unless a male bird fertilizes the eggs. So, back to flowering plants. They have the seeds but they need something to turn them into a fertilized seed.

That something is called pollen.

Pollen from plants is considered male. Add male pollen to seeds and viola!, you get a fertilized, reproducible, seed. Wrap it in an apple, a blueberry or a strawberry and you have a fruit delivery system for the seeds.

But wait. There is a catch and this is where our honey bees come into the picture and why they are extremely crucial. The vast majority of flowering plants have both the male and female parts necessary to create pollen and produce seeds. But the pollen doesn’t work on its own seeds. The pollen has to come from another like-plant. Remember, plants can’t move. So they have to attract something to come to it, bringing pollen from another plant. How do they do this, this attraction? By color, design and smell.

Attractive colors and beautiful smells will bring bees and other pollinators to the flower’s blossoms. Bees make honey from nectar and plant nectar is found at the base of the flower where the seeds are kept. Thus, the plant is saying, “if you want the nectar come bring me pollen!” Plants give off pheromones which are odors bees can detect. Many plants, when ready for pollination to occur, give off a certain pheromone (“I’m ready!”), once it is fertilized it gives off another, different, smell (“I’m done!”).

One last very cool thing. Honey bees, being a living thing, have a natural positive electrical charge. Plants have a negative charge. When a bee lands in a flower the pollen literally jumps onto its body where it clings. Yes, honey bees also collect pollen and attach it to their legs to carry back to the hive for food, but they are often covered in pollen due to this electrical charge effect. So, when they head down that very inviting colorful and wonderful pathway to the nectar (and seeds), they are giving off male pollen.

In the end, the pollination and intro bee keeping classes have turned out well. It’s amazing that some young people know, almost intuitively, that we need to turn our focus back to nature. Even Stella, the youngest, knows it is  time to help save the bees.


Bruce Vilders, BS, M.Ed., is a beekeeper and a WA state certified vocational teacher. He is the Founder/Director of the APIS Project, a honey bee education organization. See for more information. Recommended reading on honey bees and pollination include “The Incomparable Honeybee and the Economics of Pollination” by Dr. Rees Halter (published by Rocky Mt. Books).

Published in the April 2015 issue of Grow Northwest

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