MISSOULA — Flowers are in full bloom in Montana, so biologist Adele Underwood is out capturing native bees for research.
“There are thousands of species in North America and they move really fast. So what we do is when we catch them in the net, we put them on ice which allows us to handle them,” Underwood explained.
This method of safe handling allows researchers to take up-close pictures of them so they can identify them later. The importance of bees in our ecosystem may often go unnoticed with the USDA estimating that 80% of crop pollination is done by bees.
“They are extremely important in pollination. We would not see the biodiversity that we see today and we would not see the benefits of so many crops if it weren’t for them,” Underwood noted.
“What bees do is they brush themselves between visiting a flower and they’ll brush all the pollen into their corbicula -- which is a set of hairs on their legs -- which allows them to bring the pollen back to wherever they’re nesting,” Underwood explained.
Flowers produce a diverse range of cues and attractants to pollinators and in doing so kind of act like billboards -- saying, "Hey! Land here, my pollen is great."
The diverse cues include intricate color hues and patterns, fragrance, echolocation fingerprints, and even electric fields. “When a bee lands on a flower it’s because it has a lot of hair the pollen is already attracted to it through electrostatic forces,” Underwood said.
This works in the same way if you rub a balloon on your head and the hair sticks to the balloon because of static electricity. If that’s not cool enough, bees also find flowers by seeing in ultraviolet light.
“That’s the only light they can see...UV light. Like on a balsamroot. It’s just a yellow flower to us but to bees, there might be indicators in UV light that...brings the bee in,” Underwood told MTN News.
A publication in the Journal of Comparative Physiology explains that bees prefer the colors UV-blue and UV-green. The preference for UV-green is considered an instinctive behavior that bees have as soon as they emerge, but the preference for UV blue requires a learning practice.
“Bees are pretty intelligent. Research has shown that they can learn behaviors, they can communicate with one another, and even express what we would call human-like emotions,” Underwood said.
This intelligence along with UV vision allows bees to have a chance of high nectar reward at the flower they choose based on its UV color. But this isn’t the only thing bees can do to locate flowers with good pollen.
Just like the interaction with bee leg-hairs and pollen, when a bee flies close to a flower it has hairs that can sense the static electricity from the flower. They can then use this and figure out the flowers with the most pollen.
“The way to saving our bee populations is doing less. Mowing your lawn less, using less insecticides and herbicides,” Underwood concluded.
She noted that native bees aren’t as good as honeybees at cleaning themselves which means more pollen stays on native bees, making them better pollinators.