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In praise of bees: the Cupid of the flowering world
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In praise of bees: the Cupid of the flowering world

Honeybees turn nectar into honey. Plenty of other insects drink the sweet energy drink produced by flowers to fuel their flight, but no other stockpiles a concentrated version of it to see it through the winter. And we’ve prized this natural sweetener for thousands of years for its culinary and medicinal qualities.

Honeybees also secrete wax from a gland to construct their honeycomb home of hexagonal wax cells. And we have harvested it for centuries to make candles and seal documents.

They live in large colonies consisting of foraging workers, male drones and an egg-laying queen, which are component parts of a system that operate together as part of a whole in what entomologists call a superorganism. Incredibly for a tiny insect, they can convey distance and direction in relation to the sun to their co-workers by performing a waggle dance, which allows the colony to forage more efficiently than by smell and vision.

But honeybees are not the only clever bees. Rounder, hairier bumblebees, which live in smaller less structured colonies and whose plump appearance seems to defy the laws of aerodynamics, have been found to be able to learn complex, multistep tasks through social interaction.

The shrill carder bee, a type of bumblebee, in flightView image in fullscreen

Fascinating as they are, honeybees and bumblebees account for only 1% of the estimated 25,000 bee species worldwide. Most neither make honey, nor live in colonies, nor do they sting or have stripes. Even in the UK, where there are about 270 species of bee, only one is a honeybee. The vast majority are small brown solitary bees, nesting alone – although often next door to each other – in nooks and crannies or burrowing underground. These bees are wild, unlike honeybees that live in manmade hives and are managed by beekeepers.

What all bees share is that they play cupid to their favourite flowers. And this is what makes bees truly wonderful: they are flowering plants’ romantic go-betweens. Bees and flowering plants have co-evolved over 100m years, since bees broke away from wasps to become vegan, swapping meat protein for pollen. As well as being the only source of protein that bees collect to feed their young, pollen grains contain a plant’s sperm cells and they require an agent to transport them from the male part of the flower, the stamen, to the female stigma in order for the ovaries to produce seeds.

A bee is perfectly designed for this role. The hairs on its body and legs carry a positive electrical charge that attracts the negative-charged pollen grains, so as it forages for pollen and nectar it inadvertently brushes some pollen from one flower head to another. And some wild bees use a special technique called “buzz pollination” to shake the pollen from the plant.

The 20th-century Lebanese–American poet Kahlil Gibran beautifully describes the bee and plant’s symbiotic relationship: “To the bee, a flower is the fountain of life, and to the flower the bee is a messenger of love.”

So successful is the relationship that an estimated one in three mouthfuls we eat come from flowering plants pollinated by bees – most fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices, seeds and nuts, and coffee.

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Bees’ are a linchpin in the natural world, their pollination services producing seeds and berries for birds and small mammals that form an important part of nature’s food chain.

Oligolectic bees have adapted to feed mainly on one type of flower, timing their short life cycle for when the plant blooms, as with the autumn-flying ivy bee. Others are more generalists. But wherever there are flowering plants, from windswept mountaintops to humid jungles and arid deserts and even near the north pole – home to the Arctic bumblebee (Bombus polaris) – there will be bees to pollinate them. The kaleidoscope of colours and myriad perfumes are all designed to attract their master pollinator. So it is bees we have to thank for the beauty and scent of the flowering world.

  • Alison Benjamin is co-author of The Good Bee: A Celebration of Bees – and How to Save Them, out in paperback in April.

  • Welcome to the Guardian’s UK invertebrate of the year competition. Every day between 2 April and 12 April we’ll be profiling one of the incredible invertebrates that live in and around the UK. Let us know which invertebrates you think we should be including here. And at midnight on Friday 12 April, voting will open to decide which is our favourite invertebrate – for now – with the winner to be announced on Monday 15 April.

Source: theguardian.com