Category Archives: Wasps

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.

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/

What to do if you have beewolves nesting in your garden? Leave them alone!

Earlier today we had a message from the owner of the AirBnB that we are staying in to let us know that he’s expecting a guy to come and spray pesticide around the house to kill the ‘invasive’ beewolves. The European beewolf (Philanthus triangulum) is a type of wasp in the family Crabronidae that is only distantly related to the typical wasps that you find trying to share your barbecue and beer. As its name suggests, it preys upon bees, but it’s actually a pollinator itself and visits a range of flowers.

I immediately got back to our host and pointed out that beewolves are gentle insects, completely harmless, and less dangerous than the pesticide the company would use to kill them, and that he was wasting his money. He informed us that the pest control company had told him that he needed to control them other wise he’d be ‘over-run’ with them next year!

When I explained to him that this was nonsense, and that the beewolves cause no damage to people or property, he promised to get back to the company to cancel the order, and thanked me for the information. I’m hoping that I’ve made a convert to the cause of insect conservation!

It maddens me that pest control companies are preying on people’s fear of insects to make money in this way. Insects are subjected to enough assaults by human activities without making up spurious reasons for poisoning them.

So if you are lucky enough to have beewolves in your garden, please treat them with respect and watch their fascinating behaviour:

Global effects of land-use intensity on pollinator biodiversity: a new study just published

Humans affect the land on which they live in many different ways, and this in turn influences local biodiversity. Sometimes this has positive effects on local wildlife: consider the diversity of birds to be found in well-managed suburban gardens, for example. But often the effect is negative, especially when the land is intensively managed or habitats are destroyed, for example via deforestation or urban development.

This is not a new phenomenon – according to a recent study, most of the habitable parts of the planet have been shaped by humans for at least 12,000 years (see Ellis et al. 2021). What is new, however, is the scale and the speed with which land-use is changing, which are far greater than they have been historically. An important question is the extent to which this change in land-use intensity is affecting pollinator diversity in different parts of the world. Over the past 18 months I’ve been collaborating on a project led by Joe Millard (as part of his PhD) and Tim Newbold which uses the Projecting Responses of Ecological Diversity In Changing Terrestrial Systems (PREDICTS) database to address that very question.

A paper from that collaboration is published today in the journal Nature Communications; it’s open access and can be downloaded by following this link.

The study was global in scale and used data from 12,170 sites to assess the affect of land-use intensity on 4502 pollinating species. The findings are really fascinating; highlights include:

  • In comparison to natural vegetation, low levels of land-use intensity can have a positive effect on the diversity of pollinators.
  • For most land categories, greater intensity of land-use results in significant reductions in diversity and abundance of pollinators, however. For example, for urban sites there’s a 43% drop in number of species and a drop in 62% pollinator abundance from the least to the most intensive urban sites.
  • On cropland, strong negative responses of pollinators to increasing intensity are only found in tropical areas, although different taxonomic groups vary in their responses.
  • The latter finding is especially concerning given that: (i) most pollinator diversity is found in the tropics; (ii) the majority of tropical crops are insect pollinated; and (3) tropical agriculture is becoming increasingly intensive and land use is likely to rapidly change in the coming decades.

The full reference for the study, with all authors, is:

Millard, J., Outhwaite, C.L., Kinnersley, R., Freeman, R., Gregory, R.D., Adedoja, O., Gavini, S., Kioko, E., Kuhlmann, M., Ollerton, J., Ren, Z.-X. & Newbold, T. (2021) Global effects of land-use intensity on local pollinator biodiversity. Nature Communications 12, 2902. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-23228-3

“Bee Together” with YDMT – pollinator online talks during January and February

As I write a slow haze of fine snow is falling, covering our garden with a thin white dusting. Spring feels a long way off, despite the emerging spears of daffodil leaves. But you can get a taste of what the new season will bring by signing up for a short series of free evening online talks on the topic of pollinators that has been organised by the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust – here’s the link for the Bee Together programme – and here’s more details of the talks:

Thursday January 28 at 7pm: Pollinators and Pollination: Nature and Society
An overview of the diversity of pollinators in Britain, why they are important, and the threats to that diversity with Jeff Ollerton.

Thursday February 18 (7pm): The B-Lines Project
Buglife’s B-Lines network is an imaginative solution to the problem of the loss of flowers and pollinators. B-Lines are a series of ‘insect pathways’ running through our countryside and towns, along which Buglife are restoring and creating a series of wildflower-rich habitat stepping stones. Catherine Jones talks about mapping the recently completed B-Lines map and some of the projects that have already created habitat for pollinators.

Thursday February 25 (7pm): The Hidden Lives of Garden Bees
Brigit Strawbridge Howard will explain some of the basic differences between bumblebees, solitary bees, and honeybees – including lifecycles and nesting behaviour; the problems they all face; and, most important, what we can do to help. Brigit is a wildlife gardener, amateur naturalist and advocate of bees. She writes and campaigns to raise awareness of the importance of native wild bees, and is the author of Dancing with Bees: A Journey Back to Nature.

I hope to see some of you there: Happy New Year everyone!

The chapter titles for my book: Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society

A few people have asked me about what’s covered in my book which is being published by Pelagic and is currently in production. Here’s the chapter titles:

Preface                                                                                                                        

1         The importance of pollinators and pollination                               

2         More than just bees: the diversity of pollinators                           

3         To be a flower                                                                                               

4         Fidelity and promiscuity in Darwin’s entangled bank                 

5         The evolution of pollination strategies                                              

6         A matter of time: from daily cycles to climate change                 

7         Agricultural perspectives                                                                        

8         Urban environments                                                                                  

9         The significance of gardens                                                                    

10      The shifting fates of pollinators                                                            

11      New bees on the block                                                                              

12      Managing, restoring and connecting habitats                                 

13      The politics of pollination                                                                        

14      Studying pollinators and pollination                                                  

As you can see it’s a very wide-ranging overview of the subject, and written to be accessible to both specialists and non-specialists alike. To quote what I wrote in the Preface:

“While the book is aimed at a very broad audience, and is intended to be comprehensible to anyone with an interest in science and the environment, and their intersection with human societies, I hope it will also be of interest to those dealing professionally with plants and pollinators. The subject is vast, and those working on bee or hoverfly biology, for example, or plant reproductive ecology, may learn something new about topics adjacent to their specialisms. I certainly learned a lot from writing the book.”

The book is about 100,000 words in length, lots of illustrations, and there will be an index. My copy editor reckons there’s 450 references cited, though I haven’t counted. I do know that they run to 28 pages in the manuscript, and that’s with 11pt text. All going well it will be published before Christmas.

Pollinators and pollination in the UK: an introductory workshop – 26th August

Jeff WT workshop 2020

The Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire has invited me to run my Introduction to Pollinators and Pollination workshop again this year, but of course it will all be online.  Details for signing up are on the images, or you can follow this link. 

Here’s a description of the workshop:

Pollination of flowers ensures the reproduction of most British wild plants and many of our agricultural crops. This session will provide an introduction to the natural history of pollinators and how they interact with the flowers that they pollinate. The main groups of pollinators will be introduced, with guidance on how to identify them, and their ecology and behaviour will be explored. The session will also consider why conserving these species is so important, followed by a Q and A discussion showing what individuals can do to help ensure their future diversity and abundance.

For World Bee Day – an extract from my forthcoming book – UPDATED

Image

UPDATE: turns out the figure I cited for number of bee species is out of date so I’ve corrected it below. Thanks to John Ascher for pointing this out.

Publication of my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society by Pelagic Publishing has been pushed back until the end of this year or early in 2021. The current pandemic has created problems for the printing and distribution sectors, as it has for so many industries. Therefore, to celebrate World Bee Day, here’s a preview of the bee section from Chapter 2 which is entitled (ironically enough) “More than just bees – the diversity of pollinators”.

2.3 Bees, wasps and sawflies (Hymenoptera)

The bees and their relatives rank only third in terms of overall pollinator diversity.  Within this taxonomic Order, bees are not especially species rich (17,000 or so described species, perhaps 20,000 in total) – over 20,400 (see: https://www.catalogueoflife.org/col/details/database/id/67) compared with the other 50,000 social and solitary wasps, sawflies, and so forth. But what they lack in diversity the bees make up for in importance as pollinators of both wild and agricultural plants, and in their cultural significance.  The general notion of what a bee is, and how it behaves, looks to the honeybee (Apis mellifera) as a model: social, with a hierarchy, a queen, and a large nest (termed a hive for colonies in captivity).  In fact, this view of bee-ness, though long embedded within our psyche, is far removed from the biology of the average bee: most of them have no social structure at all, and a fair proportion of those are parasitic.  In Britain we have about 270 species of bees, give or take (Falk 2015) though there have been extinctions and additions to this fauna (see Chapters 10 and 11).  These species provide a reasonable sample of the different lifestyles adopted by bees globally.  They can be divided into four broad groups.

Honeybees include several highly social species and subspecies of Apis, of which the ubiquitous western honeybee (A. mellifera) is the most familiar.  Most colonies are found in managed hives, though persistent feral colonies can be found in hollow trees, wall cavities, and other suitable spaces.  They are widely introduced into parts of the world where they are not native (e.g. the Americas, Australia, New Zealand) and there is some debate as to whether they are truly native to Britain and northern Europe, with supporting evidence and arguments on both sides.  Colonies can be enormous and contain thousands of individuals, mostly female workers, with a single queen.  Unmated queens and males (drones) are produced by the colony later in the season.

Bumblebees (Bombus spp.) are typically also social, though their nests are much smaller (tens to hundreds of individuals).  Depending upon the species these nests can be in long grass, rodent holes, or cavities in buildings and trees.  Twenty-seven of the more than 250 species have been recorded in the UK, but six of these are not strictly social; they are parasitic and belong to the subgenus Psithyrus which will be described below.

The so-called solitary bees are by far the largest group in Britain (about 170 species) and worldwide (more than 90% of all species).  In the UK they belong to 15 genera, including Andrena, Anthophora, Osmia, Megachile, etc.  The females of most of these bees, once they have mated, construct nests that they alone provision with pollen for their developing young.  Nesting sites can be genus- or species-specific, and include soil, cavities in stone or wood, and snail shells.  Some species are not strictly solitary at all and may produce colonies with varying levels of social structure, though without a queen or a strict caste system; we term them “primitively eusocial”.  In fact sociality has evolved and been lost numerous times in the bees and in the rest of the Hymenoptera (Danforth 2002, Hughes et al. 2008, Danforth et al. 2019).  It’s also been lost in some groups that have reverted back to a solitary lifestyle, and even within a single genus it can vary; for example in the carpenter bee genus Ceratina (Apidae: Xylocopinae) tropical species are more often social than temperate species (Groom & Rehan 2018).

The final group is termed the cuckoo bees and, like their avian namesake, they parasitise the nests of both social and solitary bees (though never, interestingly, honeybees).  There are about 70 species in 7 genera, including the bumblebee subgenus, Psithyrus.  Other genera include Melecta, Nomada and Sphecodes.  In some cases the parasitic species are closely related evolutionarily to their hosts and may resemble them, for example some Psithyrus species.  In other cases they may be only distantly related and in fact look more like wasps, e.g. Nomada species.  Some genera of cuckoo bees are restricted to parasitising only a single genus of bees, others are parasites of a range of genera (Figure 2.4).

Although we often think of bees, overall, as being the most important pollinators, in fact species vary hugely in their importance.  Pollinating ability depends upon factors such as abundance, hairiness, behaviour, body size, and visitation rate to flowers (Figure 2.1).  Size is especially important for three reasons.  First of all, larger animals can pick up more pollen on their bodies, all other things being equal.  Secondly, in order to bridge the gap between picking up pollen and depositing it, flower visitors must be at least as large as the distance between anthers and stigma, unless they visit the stigma for other reasons.  Finally, larger bee species tend to forage over longer distances on average (Greenleaf et al. 2007) thus increasing the movement of pollen between plants.  However, most of the world’s bees are relatively small as we can see from the analysis of British bees in Figure 2.5.  Many species have a maximum forewing length of only 4 or 5 mm, and the majority of species are smaller than honeybees.  Remember also that these are maximum sizes measured from a sample; individual bees can vary a lot within populations and even (in the case of Bombus spp.) within nests (Goulson et al. 2002).  So the assumption that all bees are good pollinators needs to be tempered by an acknowledgement that some are much better than others.    


Figure 2.5: The sizes of British bees. Forewing length is a good measure of overall body size and the data are maximum lengths recorded for species, except for the social bumblebees and honeybee I have used maximum size of workers (queens are often much larger). The blue line indicates the honeybee (Apis mellifera). The biggest bee in this data set is the Violet Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa violacea) which, whilst not generally considered a native species (yet), has bred in Britain in the past. Data taken from Falk (2015).

What happens when pollinators lose their flowers? A new study suggests some answers

 

Biella et al image

Pollinators such as bees and butterflies are highly dependent on flowers to provide nectar as food; at the same time, those plants are reliant on the pollinators for reproduction.  Over the past few decades, declines in both flower and pollinator diversity and abundance have prompted ecologists to wonder about the consequences of flower loss for pollinator communities and for plant pollination.

In a ground breaking new study, a team from institutions in the Czech Republic and the University of Northampton in the UK have published the results of experiments that seek to answer these questions.  Led by PhD researcher Dr Paolo Biella, the team performed experiments in both countries that involved temporarily removing thousands of flower heads from grassland plant communities.  They assessed how the pollinator assemblage responded to their removal, and how effectively the remaining flowers were pollinated.  The team focused on generalist plant species that support the majority of pollinators within a community because these have traditionally been less well studied than highly specialised relationships.

The results are published today in the open access journal Scientific Reports and provide the first demonstration of the ways in which pollinators flexibly adjust their behaviour when faced with a sequential loss of resources.  This flexibility is constrained by the type of flowers they visit, however:  pollinators will tend to switch to flowers of a similar shape to the ones that have been lost.  From the plant’s perspective, things are less clear: the patterns of pollination for the remaining species were idiosyncratic and not as predictable.  Some plants received more pollination during the experiment than before, others less.

For the first time we are seeing the consequences of sudden loss of flowers for both the pollinators and the plants in a habitat.  That the pollinators can respond flexibly to this loss is a welcome indication that these insects might be more resilient to sudden changes than we had thought.  However, the erratic pollination of the flowers shows that there is a great deal of random chance within these ecological systems that is not easily predictable.  In the same week that the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services was published, our study reminds us that there is much that we do not currently understand about the consequences of sudden changes in the natural world.

One of the team’s recommendations is that pollination-generalist plant species should be given much more attention in conservation assessments than has previously been the case.  These plants are at the core of plant-pollinator communities and without them the rarer and more specialised species could not exist.

Details of the study are as follows:

Biella P., Akter A., Ollerton J., Tarrant S., Janeček Š., Jersáková J. & Klecka J. (2019) Experimental loss of generalist plants reveals alterations in plant-pollinator interactions and a constrained flexibility of foraging.  Scientific Reports 9: 1-13

Here’s the abstract:

Species extinctions undermine ecosystem functioning, with the loss of a small subset of functionally important species having a disproportionate impact. However, little is known about the effects of species loss on plant-pollinator interactions. We addressed this issue in a field experiment by removing the plant species with the highest visitation frequency, then measuring the impact of plant removal on flower visitation, pollinator effectiveness and insect foraging in several sites. Our results show that total visitation decreased exponentially after removing 1-4 most visited plants, suggesting that these plants could benefit co-occurring ones by maintaining high flower visitor abundances. Although we found large variation among plant species, the redistribution of the pollinator guild affected mostly the other plants with high visitor richness. Also, the plant traits mediated the effect of removal on flower visitation; while visitation of plants which had smaller inflorescences and more sugar per flower increased after removal, flower visitors did not switch between flower shapes and visitation decreased mostly in plants visited by many morpho-species of flower visitors. Together, these results suggest that the potential adaptive foraging was constrained by flower traits. Moreover, pollinator effectiveness fluctuated but was not directly linked to changes of flower visitation. In conclusion, it seems that the loss of generalist plants alters plant-pollinator interactions by decreasing pollinator abundance with implications for pollination and insect foraging. Therefore, generalist plants have high conservation value because they sustain the complex pattern of plant-pollinator interactions.