Year of Pollination: More than Honey, etc.

When I decided to spend a year writing about pollinators and pollination, I specifically wanted to focus on pollinators besides the honey bee. Honey bees already get lots of attention, and there are loads of other pollinating organisms that are equally fascinating. But that’s just the thing, honey bees are incredibly fascinating. They have a strict and complex social structure, and they make honey – two things that have led humans to develop a strong relationship with them. We have been managing honey bees and exploiting their services for thousands of years, and we have spread them across the planet, bringing them with us wherever we go. In North America, honey bees are used to pollinate a significant portion of our pollinator-dependent crops, despite the fact that they are not native to this continent. In that sense, they are just another domesticated animal, artificially selected for our benefit.

It’s common knowledge that honey bees (and pollinators in general) have been having a rough time lately. Loss of habitat, urbanization, industrial farming practices, abundant pesticide use, and a variety of pests and diseases have been making life difficult for pollinators. Generally, when the plight of pollinators comes up in the news, reference is made to honey bees (or another charismatic pollinator, the monarch butterfly). News like this encourages people to take action. On the positive side, efforts made to protect honey bees can have the side benefit of protecting native pollinators since many of their needs are the same. On the negative side, evidence suggests that honey bees can compete with native pollinators for limited resources and can pass along pests and diseases. Swords are often double-edged, and there is no silver bullet.

In a recent conversation with a budding beekeeper, I was recommended the documentary, More than Honey. I decided to watch it, write a post about it, and call that the honey bee portion of the Year of Pollination. Part way through the movie, another documentary, Vanishing of the Bees, was recommended to me, and so I decided to watch both. Below are some thoughts about each film.

more than honey movie

More than Honey

Written and directed by Swiss documentary filmmaker, Markus Imhoof, this beautifully shot, excellently narrated, meandering documentary thrusts viewers into incredibly intimate encounters with honey bees. Cameras follow bees on their flights and into their hives and get up close and personal footage of their daily lives, including mating flights, waggle dances, pupating larvae, flower pollination, and emerging queens. In some scenes, the high definition shots make already disturbing events even more disturbing, like bees dying after being exposed to chemicals and tiny varroa mites crawling around on the bodies of bees infecting them with diseases – wings wither away and bees become too weak to walk. This movie is worth watching for the impressive cinematography alone.

But bees aren’t the only actors. The human characters are almost as fun to watch. A Swiss beekeeper looks out over stunning views of the Alps where he keeps his bees. He follows a long tradition of beekeeping in his family and is very particular about maintaining a pure breed in his hives, going so far as flicking away the “wrong” bees from flowers on his property and crushing the head off of an unfaithful queen. A commercial beekeeper in the United States trucks thousands of beehives around the country, providing pollination services to a diverse group of farms – one of them being a massive almond grove in California. He has been witness to the loss of  hundreds of honey bee colonies and has had to become “comfortable with death on an epic scale” – the grueling corporate world grinds along, and there is no time for mourning losses.

Further into the documentary, a woman in Austria demonstrates how she manipulates a colony into raising not just one queen, but dozens. She has spent years breeding bees, and her queens are prized throughout the world. A man in Arizona captures and raises killer bees – hybrid bees resulting from crosses between African and European honey bees (also known as Africanized honey bees). Despite their highly aggressive nature, he prefers them because they are prolific honey producers and they remain healthy without the use of synthetic pesticides.

Probably the darkest moment in the film is watching workers in China hand pollinate trees in an orchard. Excessive pesticide use has decimated pollinator populations in some regions, leaving humans to do the pollinating and prompting the narrator to reflect on the question, “Who’s better at pollinating, man or bees? Science answers with a definite, ‘not man.'”

Also included in the film is an intriguing discussion about bees as a super-organism with a German neuroscientist who is studying bee brains. The narrator sums it up like this: “Without its colony the individual bee cannot survive. It must subordinate its personal freedom for the good of the colony… Could it be that individual bees are like the organs or cells of a body? Is the super-organism as a whole the actual animal?”

Vanishing-of-the-bees

Vanishing of the Bees

Colony collapse disorder is a sometimes veiled yet important theme throughout More than Honey, and it was certainly something that drove the creation of the film. In the case of Vanishing of the Bees, colony collapse disorder is the reason for its existence. Narrated by actor, Ellen Page, and produced in part by a film production company called Hive Mentality Films, this movie came out on the heels of the news that bee colonies were disappearing in record numbers throughout the world. It tells the story of colony collapse disorder from the time that it first appeared in the news – one of the film’s main characters is the beekeeper that purportedly first brought attention to the phenomenon – and into the years that followed as scientists began exploring potential causes.

This film contains lots of important information and much of it seems credible, but it is also the type of documentary that in general makes me wary of documentaries. Its purpose goes beyond just trying to inform and entertain; it’s also trying to get you on board with its cause. I may agree with much of what is being said, but I don’t particularly like having my emotions targeted in an effort to manipulate me to believe a certain way. It’s a good idea not to let documentaries or any other type of media form your opinions for you. Consider the claims, do some of your own research and investigation, and then come to your own conclusion. That’s my advice anyway…even though you didn’t ask for it.

That being said, colony collapse disorder is a serious concern, and so I’ll end by going back to More than Honey and leave you with this quote by its narrator:

The massive death of honey bees is no mystery. What’s killing them is not pesticides, mites, antibiotics, incest, or stress, but a combination of all these factors. They are dying as a result of our civilization’s success, as a result of man, who has turned feral bees into docile, domestic animals – wolves into delicate poodles.

Year of Pollination: The Anatomy of a Bee

A greater appreciation for pollinators can be had by learning to identify them – being able to tell one from another and calling them by name. Anyone can tell a butterfly from a bee, but how about telling a sweat bee from a leafcutter bee? Or one species of sweat bee from another species of sweat bee? That takes more training. This is where knowing the parts of a bee becomes important.

I am new to learning the names of pollinators. I’ve been learning the names of plants for many years now (and I still have a long way to go), but my knowledge of insect identification is largely limited to one entomology course I took in college and the occasional reading about insects in books and magazines. So, this post is just as much for me as it is for anybody else. It also explains why it is brief and basic. It’s for beginners.

This first illustration is found in the book Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm. The book starts with brief overviews of pollination, pollinators, and pollinator conservation, but then spends nearly 200 pages profiling specific plants and describing the particular species of pollinating insects that visit them. The photos of the insects are great and should be very useful in helping to identify pollinators.

bee anatomy_pollinators of native plants book

This next illustration is from the book California Bees and Blooms by Gordon W. Frankie, et al. The title is a bit deceptive because much of what is found in this book is just as applicable to people outside of California as it is to people within. There is some discussion about plants and pollinators specific to California and the western states, but there is also a lot of great information about bees, flowers, and pollination in general, including some great advice on learning to identify bees. The book includes this basic diagram, but it also provides several other more detailed illustrations that help further describe things like mouth parts, wings, and legs.

bee anatomy_california bees and blooms book

As part of their discussion on identifying bees, the authors of California Bees and Blooms offer these encouraging and helpful words to beginners like me: “Even trained taxonomists must examine most bees under a microscope to identify them to species level, but knowing the characteristics to look for can give you a pretty good idea of the major groups and families of bees that are visiting your garden. These include size, color, and features of the head, thorax, wings, and abdomen.”

If you would like to know more about the pollinators found in your region, including their names, life history, and the plants they visit, books like the aforementioned are a good start. Also, find yourself a copy of a field guide for the insects in your area and a good hand lens. Then spend some time outside closely and quietly observing the busy lives of the tiny things around you. I plan to do more of this sort of thing, and I am excited see what I might find. Let me know what you find.

Here are a few online resources for learning more about bee anatomy and bee identification:

Other “Year of Pollination” Posts:

Year of Pollination: Dung Moss

Last year I wrote about two groups of plants that emit foul odors when they bloom: corpse flowers and carrion flowers. Their scent is akin to the smell of rotting flesh, hence their common names. The purpose of this repugnant act is to attract a specific group of pollinators: flies, carrion beetles, and other insects that are attracted to gross things. Though this particular strategy is rare, these aren’t the only plants that have evolved to produce stinky smells in order to recruit such insects to aid in their reproductive processes. For one, there is a very unique group of mosses that do this, commonly known as dung mosses. Judging from the name, you can probably imagine what their smell must be like. However, their common name doesn’t just describe their scent, but also where they live.

At least three genera (SplachnumTetraplodon, and Tayloria) in the family Splachnaceae include species that go by the common name, dung moss. All Splachnum and Tetraplodon species and many species in the genus Tayloria are entomophilous. Entomophily is a “pollination syndrome”, a subject we will explore more thoroughly in future posts, in which pollen or spores are distributed by insects. Compare this to anemophily, or wind pollination, which is the more common way that moss spores are distributed. In fact, dung mosses are the only mosses known to exhibit entomophily.

Dung Moss (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Dung Moss (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Before we go too much further, it’s probably important to have a basic understanding of how mosses differ from other plants. Mosses are in a group of non-vascular and non-flowering plants called bryophytes. Vascular tissues are the means by which water and nutrients are transported to and from different plant parts. Lacking vascular tissues, water and nutrients are simply absorbed by the leaves of bryophytes (although some species have structures akin to vascular tissue), which is why they typically grow low to the ground and in moist environments. Bryophytes also lack true roots and instead have rhizoids, threadlike structures that anchor the plants to the ground or to some other substrate (such as dung).

Another major distinction between bryophytes and other plants is that bryophytes spend most of their life cycle as a haploid gametophyte rather than a diploid sporophyte (haploid meaning that it only has one set of chromosomes; diploid meaning that there are two sets of chromosomes, one from the father and one from the mother). In most plants, the haploid gametophyte is a sperm (pollen) or an egg. In bryophytes, the familiar green, leafy structure is actually the gametophyte. The gametophyte houses sperm and egg cells, and when the egg is fertilized by sperm it forms a zygote that develops into the sporophyte structure which extends above the leafy gametophyte. A capsule at the top of the sporophyte contains spores which are eventually released and, upon finding themselves on a suitable substrate in a hospitable environment, germinate to produce new plants. The spore then is comparable to a seed in vascular, seed-bearing plants.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

As stated earlier, the spores of most mosses are distributed by wind. Dung mosses, on the other hand, employ flies in the distribution of their spores. They attract the flies by emitting scents that only flies can love from an area on the capsule of the sporophyte called the apophysis. This area is often enlarged and brightly colored in yellow, magenta, or red, giving it a flower-like appearance which acts as a visual attractant. The smells emitted vary depending on the type of substrate a particular species of dung moss has become adapted to living on. Some dung mosses grow on the dung of herbivores and others on the dung of carnivores. Some even prefer the dung of a particular group of animals; for example, a population of Tetraplodon fuegiensis was found to be restricted to the feces and remains of foxes. However, dung is not the only material that dung mosses call home.  Certain species grow on carrion, skeletal remains, or antlers. The smells these species produce attract flies that prefer dead flesh and bone in various states of decay.

Yellow Moosedung Moss (Splachnum luteum) has one of the largest and showiest sporophytes. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Yellow Moosedung Moss (Splachnum luteum) has one of the largest and showiest sporophytes. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

The spores of dung mosses are small and sticky. When a fly visits these plants, the spores adhere to its body in clumps. The fly then moves on to its substrate of choice to lay its eggs, and the spores are deposited where they will then germinate and grow into new moss plants. Flies that visit dung mosses receive nothing in return for doing so, but instead are simply “tricked” into disseminating the propagules. The story is similar with corpse flowers and carrion flowers; flies are drawn in by the smells and recruited to transmit pollen but receive no nectar reward for their work.

There are 73 species in the Splachnaceae family, and nearly half of these species are dung mosses. These mosses are mostly found in temperate habitats in both the northern and southern hemispheres, with a few species occurring in the mountains of subtropical regions. They can be found in both wet and relatively dry habitats. Dung mosses are generally fast growing but short lived, with some lasting only about 2 years. It isn’t entirely clear how and why mosses in this family evolved to become entomophilous, but one major benefit of being this way is that their spores are reliably deposited on suitable habitat. Because of this directed dispersal, they can produce fewer and smaller spores, which is an economical use of resources.

Sporophytes of Splachnum vasculosum (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Sporophytes of Splachnum vasculosum (photo credit: www.eol.org)

References

Koponen, A. 2009. Entomophily in the Splachnaceae. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 104: 115-127.

Marino, P., R. Raguso, and B. Goffinet. 2009. The ecology and evolution of fly dispersed dung mosses (Family Splachnaceae): Manipulating insect behavior through odour and visual cues. Symbiosis 47: 61-76.

2014: Year in Review

It is time again to look back at a year gone by and look forward to another year to come. Usually when we get to this point on the calendar, regardless of how my year has gone, I am anxious to put another year behind me and jump headlong into a new one, reinvigorated by that fresh start feeling that a new year seems to bring.

I manage this blog like a manage most things in my life, by the seat of my pants, not always sure where I am going with it but confident I will figure it out along the way. I have really enjoyed doing the blog this year, and I have felt a sense of direction for it emerging (at least in my mind; not sure if it comes across in the posts), and so in the spirit of that trajectory, I am thrilled to be entering my third year. I have a head full of ideas and I am gaining steam, so if things go the way I envision, this will be an abundant year of diverse posts that will hopefully prove to be enlightening, entertaining, and engrossing.

Serial Posts, etc.

In 2014 I started a few series of posts, and I plan to start more in 2015. The first one I started was an Ethnobotany series, which so far includes Holy Basil, Marigolds, and Cinchona. I also began a series on Drought Tolerant Plants, which so far consists of An Introduction, Fernbush, and Blue Sage. Flower Anatomy and Fruits were part of another new series exploring Botanical Terms. Some ideas for other series include: Poisonous Plants, Famous Botanists in History, and Botany in Popular Culture. None of these series has a regular posting schedule and each will continue indefinitely. I also plan to write more book reviews, as I only managed one in 2014 (Seedswap by Josie Jeffery). And speaking of reviews, probably my most ambitious endeavor of 2014 was reviewing the 17 articles in the October 2014 Special Issue of American Journal of Botany. You can read a recap here.

Social Media

It’s no mystery that having a social media presence in this day and age is imperative to the success of virtually any venture, especially a blog since the internet is veritably flooded with them. I’ve decided that Twitter is my favorite form of social media for now, and so I have been spending most of my time there. You can find and follow me @awkwardbotany. I also started a sister microblog on Tumblr in 2014. I mostly post plant and garden photos, and occasionally I share links to plant related things that I find interesting. Find and follow me here.

If you like what you read here and want to support Awkward Botany, the most helpful thing you can do is share it with your friends, family, and acquaintances. The easiest way to do that is by linking to individual posts on your preferred social media sites (there are buttons at the end of each post that help you do that). Or you can just tell people about it in person by using your mouth to make words, the old fashioned way. If you do share Awkward Botany online, consider including #phytocurious. You can also use this hashtag for anything plant related, including (especially) pictures of plants, that way I can easily find the cool plant things you are posting and share in your plant nerd glee.

Guest Posts

I hinted last year that I was considering publishing guest posts, and I have decided that I really want to do that. I’m going to be kind of picky about what I post, but don’t let that stop you from submitting something. You can write about your favorite plant, interesting plant science research, plants in the news, book or other media reviews, or anything else plant related. If this interests you, let me know by using the contact form or by sending me a message on Twitter. We can discuss further details from there.

Year of Pollination

Because I have developed such a fascination with pollinators and pollination (and because it is such an important topic), I have decided to dub 2015 the Year of Pollination. So far what this means is that I will be posting about pollinators and pollination at least once if not twice a month during each month of the year. This idea is young, so it could mean other things, too. Time will tell, so stay tuned.

SAMSUNG

I have lots of other thoughts and ideas swirling around in my brain, but I will keep them to myself for now until they are more fully formed. What I have included here will suffice. Thank you so much for reading and sharing. I wish you and yours all the best in 2015.