Category Archives: Bees

Do bumblebees make honey? Yes and no…and…maybe [UPDATED]

As kids, my friends and I did a lot of digging. We always seemed to be burrowing into slopes or excavating trenches, pretending to be archaeologists or treasure hunters. Indeed, there was a lot of ground treasure to be found in the part of Sunderland where I grew up. The area has a long history of pottery and glass making, and ship building, and the remnants of these industries could be uncovered every time we stuck a spade in the earth. Over time I developed my own small museum of interesting, unearthed fragments, including bits of hand-painted ceramics, glass bottles, and unidentifiable metal shards, alongside various animal bones I’d excavated. My parents quietly indulged this interest, and my muck-streaked face and clothes, even if they didn’t quite understand what I was doing.

Aged about 10, my first encounter with a bumblebee nest was during one such dig. On the waste ground behind a large advertising hoarding, we began digging into a low, grass-covered mound and accidentally excavated what was probably a small nest of Buff-tailed Bumblebees (Bombus terrestris). I can recall being fascinated by the waxy, odd shaped cells and by the sticky fluid that some of them were leaking. Being an adventurous sort of child I tasted the liquid: it was sweet and sticky, and that was my first encounter with bumblebee “honey”.

I’m going to leave those quotation marks in place because if you do an online search for “do bumblebees make honey?” you generally find that the answer is “no, only honey bees make honey”.

Now, defining honey as something made by honey bee strikes me as a circular argument at best. And it also neglects the “honey” made by meliponine bees that is central to the culture of stingless bee keeping by indigenous groups in Central and South America, and the long tradition pre-colonial tradition of honey hunting by Aboriginal Australians. So if we widen our definition of “honey” as being the nectar*-derived fluid stored in the nests of social bees, then Apis honey bees, stingless bees and bumblebees must all, by logic, make honey. And likewise there’s wasps in the genus Brachygastra from Central and South America that are referred to as “honey wasps” because, well, I’m sure you can work it out!

But this is where things become a little trickier, because turning nectar* into honey involves some complex evaporation and enzymatic activity, so that the resulting fluid is more concentrated and dominated by the sugars glucose and fructose. Although analysis of honey bee honey is commonplace, and there’s been some research conducted on the honey of stingless bees, I don’t know of any studies that have compared Bombus honey with that of other bees, or with what is stored in the nests of honey wasps**. If I’ve missed anything, please do comment and let me know, but this strikes me as an area of research demanding some attention.

So do bumblebees make honey? That very much depends on our definitions, but I’m happy to accept that they do because “honey” is not a single thing: it’s an insect-derived substance that can take a range of forms but serves the same broad purpose of feeding the colony. And although insects have probably been producing it for millions of years, I think I’ve known the answer to the question for almost 50 of them…

UPDATE: A couple of people have commented on social media that there are legal definitions of “honey” as a foodstuff. Here’s the definition according to UK law***:

“the natural sweet substance produced by Apis mellifera bees from the nectar of plants or from secretions of living parts of plants or excretions of plant-sucking insects on the living parts of plants which the bees collect, transform by combining with specific substances of their own, deposit, dehydrate, store and leave in honeycombs to ripen and mature”

So, legally, we can’t call anything that isn’t made by Apis mellifera “honey”, at least from a foodstuffs regulation perspective. But that’s clearly different to what we have been discussing above, which is about a biological definition of honey.

It’s also interesting to look at the compositional requirements of honey as a foodstuff (presented in Schedule one of that document, if you follow the link above). The lower limit for moisture content is 20%. Now if you consider that most nectar in flowers has a sugar content of between about 20% and 50%, clearly there’s been a lot of evaporative work done by the bees to reduce the amount of water in the honey. I would love to know how bumblebee (and other insect) “honey” compares to this: do they put the same kind of effort into evaporating the water from the stored nectar? Given that the purpose of reducing the water content is to prevent fermentation by yeasts when it’s stored for a long time, and that there are bumblebee species which have colonies that are active for more than one year, I imagine that at least some species in some parts of their range may employ similar tactics.

Thanks to everyone who has been commenting and discussing the topic. It never ceases to amaze me how much we still do not understand about some fundamental aspects of the natural history of familiar species!

*And honeydew to a greater or lesser extent.

**I’m going to ignore honey pot ants for now as this is complex enough as it is and they don’t store the “honey” in nest cells.

***From what I can gather definitions in other countries are similar.

What are the best books about bees and other pollinators?

Clearly that’s a very subjective question and everyone has their own view on which books about a particular subject they would recommend! So coming up with a list of just five for the Shepherd book recommendation site was not easy. My list features authors such as Brenda Z. Guiberson, Megan Lloyd, Steven Falk, Dave Goulson, Mike Shanahan and Stephen L. Buchmann, which will hopefully inspire you to read some of these books.

Here’s the link: https://shepherd.com/best-books/bees-and-other-pollinators

If you think that I’ve missed your favourite from the list, please do comment below. And if you’re an author, consider signing up for Shepherd and curating your own list, they’ve been really helpful and it’s a useful service for readers and authors.

The coltsfoot is flowering! But why is it so different to dandelion?

Yesterday Karin and I took to our bikes and rode south through some very nice, managed beech and oak woodland that runs parallel to the Isefjorden in this part of Odsherred. In was cold but sunny, birds were singing, and we saw the occasional insect on the wing. The kind of day that reminds you that spring is coming fast. On the way back we paused at a small housing development near the former psychiatric hospital at Annebergparken. In an area of disturbed ground I was delighted to see a patch of coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) in full flower, the dandelion-like inflorescences a beacon to passing bees and flies.

Although it resembles a small dandelion, and belongs to the same family (Asteraceae), Tussilago is only distantly related to Taraxacum. Coltsfoot is really a type of groundsel (tribe Senecioneae) whereas dandelions are related to chicory (tribe Cichorieae).

Coltsfoot is unusual in that it produces its flowering stems long before the leaves that give it its common name, the plant’s reproduction powered by the energy that it stored up the previous year. Dandelions, like most herbaceous plants, produce their leaves first, then flower. That’s not the only difference to dandelions though.

The Database of Pollinator Interactions (DoPI) lists 9 species of insect that have been recorded as visiting coltsfoot for nectar and/or pollen. In contrast, the entry for Taraxacum officinale lists more than130 species as flower visitors. I thought initially that it might be due simply to under-recording, but this study of coltsfoot in Germany only recorded 16 insect species. So the greater attractiveness of dandelion is likely to be real. Why the big difference in pollinators?

One reason for it could be that dandelions have a very different flowering strategy; they can be in flower 12 months of the year, depending on local weather conditions, with a reproductive peak in May or June. They therefore have the opportunity to interact with many more insects than coltsfoot, which in contrast you generally only see in flower between March and May at the very latest.

Dandelions are also much more abundant than coltsfoot which is no doubt also a big factor in determining how often insects are observed on the flower heads. It’s not unusual to see whole fields full of dandelions in flower but I’ve never seen coltsfoot do that, perhaps because they prefer to grow on rather disturbed ground.

There may be some other factors at play here that I’m not aware of, for example a lower rate of nectar production in coltsfoot. Having said that, the fact that dandelions produce any nectar at all is a real conundrum. All of the literature claims that Taraxacum officinale is “apomictic“, a plant reproductive strategy in which seeds are produced without requiring ovules to be fertilised by pollen. In fact the online Ecological Flora of Britain and Ireland entry for dandelions lists the pollen vector as “none” for that very reason. But I’m sure that the real story is more complicated, otherwise why would these plants invest so much of their energy and resources in attracting and rewarding flower visitors? I’ve not delved deeply into the Taraxacum literature so perhaps one of my readers knows?

Our encounter with coltsfoot reminded me of the work that I did last year with the Stanwick Lakes nature reserve in Northamptonshire, advising on how best to enhance and manage the site (which is primarily a bird reserve) for pollinators. One of my recommendations was that they enlist their volunteers to collect seeds and root or stem cuttings from the small, isolated populations of early-flowering plants such as coltsfoot (pictured on the reserve below) and introduce them around the site in suitable spots. This would both increase the availability of nectar and pollen for the first flower visitors of spring, and also the ecological connectivity between different parts of the site as the pollinators are able to move around more effectively. So I was delighted to see this post on LinkedIn from Liz Williams who works at Stanwick, demonstrating that they have taken my advice on board and begun the hard work of planting for pollinators.

My work with Stanwick was an example of the advisory and consulting services that I offer. If you’d like some advice on how to improve an area for pollinators, or for biodiversity more broadly, please do get in touch via my Contact page.

Practical methods for assessing insect pollination services provided by sites – download our new study for free

In September 2016, along with 11 other pollinator & pollination scientists, I took part in a two-day two-day workshop held at the UNEP-World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge. The aim was to develop a range of simple, practical methods to enable the valuation of insect pollination services to agricultural crops that are provided by a nature reserves or other natural or semi-natural habitats, for TESSA – the Toolkit for Ecosystem Service Site-Based Assessments.

After a long gestation, caused not least by the COVID-19 pandemic, the paper outlining the methods that we developed has been published. It’s open-access and downloadable for free. Here’s the full reference with a link to the paper:

Ratto, F., Breeze, T. D., Cole, L. J., Garratt, M. P. D., Kleijn, D., Kunin, B., Michez, D., O’Connor, R., Ollerton, J., Paxton, R. J., Poppy, G. M., Potts, S. G., Senapathi, D., Shaw, R., Dicks, L. V., & Peh, K. S.-H. (2022) Rapid assessment of insect pollination services to inform decision-making. Conservation Biology 1–13

And here’s the Abstract:

Pollinator declines have prompted efforts to assess how land-use change affects insect pollinators and pollination services in agricultural landscapes. Yet many tools to measure insect pollination services require substantial landscape-scale data and technical expertise. In expert workshops, 3 straightforward methods (desk-based method, field survey, and empirical manipulation with exclusion experiments) for rapid insect pollination assessment at site scale were developed to provide an adaptable framework that is accessible to non-specialist with limited resources. These methods were designed for TESSA (Toolkit for Ecosystem Service Site-Based Assessment) and allow comparative assessment of pollination services at a site of conservation interest and in its most plausible alternative state (e.g., converted to agricultural land). We applied the methods at a nature reserve in the United Kingdom to estimate the value of insect pollination services provided by the reserve. The economic value of pollination services provided by the reserve ranged from US$6163 to US$11,546/year. The conversion of the reserve to arable land would provide no insect pollination services and a net annual benefit from insect-pollinated crop production of approximately $1542/year (US$24∙ha–1∙year–1). The methods had wide applicability and were readily adapted to different insect-pollinated crops: rape (Brassica napus) and beans (Vicia faba) crops. All methods were rapidly employed under a low budget. The relatively less robust methods that required fewer resources yielded higher estimates of annual insect pollination benefit.

Listen to an interview with me on the Environmental Professional’s Radio podcast!

text and logo over a background picture of a person posing for the camera

I was recently invited to chat about careers and writing and pollinators and pollination with the folks from National Association of Environmental Professionals for their Environmental Professional’s Radio podcast. You can listen to it here:

https://www.environmentalprofessionalsradio.com/

We covered a lot of ground and it was great fun – thanks for having me!

Ivy binds the landscape and bridges the seasons: a new article just published

If you check out the latest issue of Bees and Other Pollinators Quarterly you’ll see that, as well as having a piece on the forthcoming COP26 climate change meeting and what it means for pollinators, the magazine has also published a short opinion piece by me called “In Praise of….Ivy”. The magazine is currently in the shops or you can subscribe by following this link: https://bq-mag.store/.

Although it can be invasive and an environmental nuisance in parts of the world where it’s introduced, common or European ivy (Hedera helix) is clearly one of the most vital plants across its native range of Europe, southern Scandinavia and the Mediterranean. Its clinging stems bind the landscape and provide habitat for a diversity of creatures. By offering nectar at a time when there’s few other plants in flower, and berries at a crucial point in the winter, ivy bridges a food gap for both nectar feeding insect and fruit eating birds and mammals.

Ivy is a very popular subject for student research because it’s in flower at the start of the university academic year. In the past I’ve had several students carry out their final year projects using ivy to test ideas about pollinator effectiveness and plant reproductive success. Because the open, densely-clustered flowers can dust pollen onto any insect that visits, the most effective pollinators will vary depending on which are abundant at any time and place, and include various types of flies and bees, plus those much-misunderstood wasps!

Perhaps we should leave the final word on ivy to the Northamptonshire ‘Peasant Poet’ John Clare who wrote ‘To the Ivy’ in the early 19th century:

Dark creeping Ivy, with thy berries brown,

That fondly twists’ on ruins all thine own,

Old spire-points studding with a leafy crown

Which every minute threatens to dethrone;

With fearful eye I view thy height sublime,

And oft with quicker step retreat from thence

Where thou, in weak defiance, striv’st with Time,

And holdst his weapons in a dread suspense.

But, bloom of ruins, thou art dear to me,

When, far from danger’s way, thy gloomy pride

Wreathes picturesque around some ancient tree

That bows his branches by some fountain-side:

Then sweet it is from summer suns to be,

With thy green darkness overshadowing me.

Further reading

Bradbury, K. (2015) English ivy: berry good for birds. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/gardening-blog/2015/feb/19/english-ivy-berry-good-for-birds

Bumblebee Conservation Trust (2021) Ivy mining bee: https://www.bumblebeeconservation.org/ivyminingbee/

Jacobs, J.H., Clark, S.J., Denholm, I., Goulson D., Stoate, C. & Osborne J.L. (2010) Pollinator effectiveness and fruit set in common ivy, Hedera helix (Araliaceae). Arthropod-Plant Interactions 4: 19–28

Ollerton, J. (2021) Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society. Pelagic Publishing, Exeter, UK

Ollerton, J., Killick, A., Lamborn, E., Watts, S. & Whiston, M. (2007) Multiple meanings and modes: on the many ways to be a generalist flower. Taxon 56: 717-728

Woodland Trust (2021) Ivy. https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/plants/wild-flowers/ivy/

Pollinators and COP26: new article out soon

Watch out for my article in Bees and Other Pollinators Quarterly Magazine about what the forthcoming COP26 climate change meeting has in store for pollinators, including why commitments to developing countries are important and the Grasslands+ initiative.

The magazine is in the shops on October 12th or you can subscribe by following this link: https://bq-mag.store/

A Copenhagen (and beyond) Bestiary – part 5

At the end of August I was back in Copenhagen for a couple of days to take part in the PhD defence of Céline Moreaux, who has been working on coffee pollination and bee conservation. While I was there I snapped a couple more images for my Copenhagen Bestiary series. However I’ve also seen some interesting sculpture and building decoration further afield this month, in Aarhus, Silkeborg, and Nykøbing Sjælland. I especially like the wooden carved canopy support in the form of a duck, from Aarhus: it’s very subtle and I almost walked past it.

And before anyone asks, no, Karin and I are NOT part of the bestiary, but I didn’t get a shot of the troll by itself.

Claims that only 10% – and not 75% – of crops are pollinator dependent are misleading and dishonest

Earlier this week the Genetic Literacy Project site posted an essay entitled ‘10% — not 75% — of crops pollinator-dependent: Our World in Data debunks claims that global food supply is imminently endangered by ‘disappearing’ insects‘. That click-bait title is hugely misleading, some of the purported ‘facts’ are incorrect, and indeed the whole thing reeks of dishonesty and bad faith.

First the misleading title. This ‘debunks’ claim actually compares two different things: 75% of CROPS being dependent on pollinators versus 10% of crop YIELD. However, even if we focus on the 10% claim, a small increase in yield can be the difference between profit and bankruptcy for small-scale farmers. And most of the world’s farmers are small-scale and living on the borderline between loss and break-even. In addition, there’s no acknowledgement of the food production from home gardens, allotments, and community gardens, which is significant but largely unquantified.

Next, by focusing on yield and comparing, say, wind-pollinated wheat with insect-pollinated apples, the article takes no account of the fact that many of these crops that depend to some extent on pollinators mainly provide essential vitamins and minerals – not calories – to diets. When I tweeted about this earlier in the week, one person commented that they describe the insect-pollinated foods as ‘an important source of flavour and colour in our diets, rice and wheat are all well and good, but you do kinda need something more than grey slop to live’. Another said: ‘I’m so glad you mentioned this. I’m sick of reading articles that praise innovations to increase calories, when what we need is better nutrition from vitamins, minerals & fibres’.

Both great points, and well made.

That essay was also factually incorrect when it described roots crops such as carrots or some of the leafy cabbages and lettuces as not requiring pollinators. Many varieties of these crops ARE pollinator dependent: how do they think we get the seed for the next year’s crop?! And there are many crops and varieties that have not been evaluated for their dependency on pollinators: the 75% figure actually refers to the 115 most productive crop plants (Klein et al. 2007).

When I tweeted about the essay I commented that I was very disappointed by ‘Our World in Data’ – they are usually better than this when it comes to the facts. What I hadn’t appreciated at the time was that in fact the Genetic Literacy Project had highjacked the original piece by Hannah Ritchie and reworked it to give it a very different slant*.

This is where it starts to get dishonest and in fact the Genetic Literacy Project (GLP) has form in this area. The Sourcewatch site describes the GLP as ‘a corporate front group that was formerly funded by Monsanto’ with a remit to ‘shame scientists and highlight information helpful to Monsanto and other chemical producers’. In other words it’s heavily tied to Big Agriculture which, of course, would like us to believe that there’s not an issue with declining pollinators, that pesticides and agricultural intensification are our friends, and that Everything Is OK. Read the full account here.

Frankly, the GLP is so tainted that I’d not believe anything that they publish.

Pollinator decline and the role of pollinators in agriculture are complex issues. If you’d like to know more about the importance of pollinators to agriculture, complete with some accurate and objective facts, then there’s a whole chapter devoted to the topic in my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society.

*Note that I’ve been communicating with Hannah about the root and leaf crop issue and she accepts that this needs to change in the original. She’s also asked the Genetic Literacy Project to take down their version as it contravenes copyright.

Reference

Klein, A.-M., Vaissière, B.E., Cane, J.H. et al. (2007) Importance of pollinators in
changing landscapes for world crops. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B
274: 303–313.

Impacts of the introduced European honey bee on Australian bee-flower networks – a new study just published

As I mentioned in my previous post, it’s currently Invasive Species Week in the UK. Non-native species which have negative environmental impacts and disrupt infrastructure are a global phenomenon, of course, and almost all regions of the world have been impacted by species that originated elsewhere. One alien species that is of growing concern in Australia is the western honey bee Apis mellifera. We often think of bees as being relatively benign organisms, but a number of species have been introduced around the world and may compete with native species for nectar and pollen, and nesting sites.

In the second paper from my collaboration with Dr Kit Prendergast, we’ve assessed how introduced honey bees change the structure of bee-flower visitation networks in Australian urban habitats. The main finding is that when honey bees are common, they dominate these networks in ways that indicate significant competition with native bee species. You can get a sense of that from the figure above: the honey bees are in red, native bees in yellow, native plants in light green, and non-native plants in dark green. The length of the bars is proportional to the abundance of these plants and bees.

To say that honey bees ‘dominate’ these networks is an understatement: not only are they vastly more abundant than the other bees, but they visit almost all of the different types of flowers in the network, regardless of whether they are native or introduced.

Although the honey bee bullshit machine often claims that western honey bees are dying out, the exact opposite is true: across the world, managed Apis mellifera numbers are higher than ever, as you can see from the following chart based on figures from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN-FAO):

Whilst the growth in honey bee numbers is a good thing for honey producers, bee farmers, and small-scale subsistence farmers, there are environmental consequences to the increase in hives, as we have shown.

If anyone wants a PDF of the paper, please use the Contact form. The full reference for the study and the abstract is:

Prendergast, K.S. & Ollerton, J. (2021) Impacts of the introduced European honeybee on Australian bee-flower network properties in urban bushland remnants and residential gardens. Austral Ecology (in press) https://doi.org/10.1111/aec.13040

Abstract:

The European honeybee Apis mellifera is a highly successful, abundant species and has been introduced into habitats across the globe. As a supergeneralist species, the European honeybee has the potential to disrupt pollination networks, especially in Australia, whose flora and fauna have co-evolved for millions of years. The role of honeybees in pollination networks in Australia has been little explored and has never been characterised in urban areas, which may favour this exotic species due to the proliferation of similarly exotic plant species which this hyper-generalist can utilise, unlike many native bee taxa. Here, we use a bipartite network approach to compare the roles, in terms of species-level properties, of honeybees with native bee taxa in bee-flower (‘pollination’) networks in an urbanised biodiversity hotspot. We also assessed whether the abundance of honeybees influences overall network structure. Pollination networks were created from surveys across seven residential gardens and seven urban native vegetation remnants conducted monthly during the spring-summer period over two years. There were consistent differences in species-level properties between bee taxa, with honeybees often differing from all other native bees. Honeybees had significant impacts on network properties, being associated with higher nestedness, extinction slopes of plants, functional complementarity and niche overlap (year two), as well as lower weighted connectance and generalisation. These associations all are indicative that competition is occurring between the introduced honeybee and the native bee taxa in bee-flower networks. In conclusion, the introduced honeybee occupies a dominant, distinct position in bee-flower networks in urban habitats in the southwest Western Australian biodiversity hotspot