A closeup of a sweat bee, Halictus ligatus, that has collected pollen. Photo credit: United States Geological Survey

If you are a bee, how the New York Times sees you

As a journalist I have been a fan of the New York Times for a long time. As a beekeeper, I have another reason to like them. Joanna Klein’s interesting take this week on explaining the life of a bee breaks a few journalist conventions. One, of course, is writing in the second person.

But I think that can be overlooked when you see how Klein took a simple issue – how and why bees collect pollen – and fused it with new research published in the Journal of Functional Ecology that looks at how rewards factor into a bee’s decision which plant to visit.

People sometimes ask me why bees collect pollen, and why they favour some plants over others. What is it draws bees to lavender or dandelion or blackberry, but are not so finicky about cranberry or some types of blueberries, for example? Is it the difficulty of collecting nectar and pollen, or the taste?

A bit of a primer here: bees require three basic things for life. One is water. Another is nectar from plants, a carbohydrate which they convert to honey and use for energy. The third is pollen, a source of proteins and amino acids. These are the building blocks of life.

But not all pollens are the same. Here’s an interesting list of the crude proteins found in a variety of Australian pollens. I’ve got a similar list for North American pollens, but it is not online. However, you can see from the Australian list that the percentage of crude protein in each type of pollen can vary widely. Depending on availability, presumably,  honey bees will prefer pollens that they believe are better for their brood.

We often can tell what is in bloom in the neighbourhood by watching what colour of pollen the bees are bringing in to the hives. Favourite time for me is in the late summer when the pollen packs on returning bees’ legs are like a rainbow. The bright yellow of Phacelia Campanularia, the cream of borage, the white of Himalayan Blackberry, the green of Purple Loosetrife.

Kudos to the New York Times for the way they treated this issue.

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