#TBT to 100 Million Years Ago – Honeybee Edition

Which came first, the flower or the honeybee? A great chicken and the egg question, right?

iStock_000048696322amAbout 100 million years ago, in the mid-Cretaceous era, the first flowers started to appear on Earth. At that time, many plants on Earth evolved from spore-based reproduction to pollen-based reproduction. Spore-based reproduction required wind to spread the spores and fertilize the ferns, mosses and fungi that dominated the Earth’s surface, while these new flowers, with their pollen-based reproduction, needed the help of pollinators such as moths, bees, and birds.

After nearly 10 million years of duking it out with spore-based reproduction, pollen-based reproduction via flowers won Mother Nature’s race as the predominate method of reproduction. Today, about ninety percent of all plant species are flowering plants, and flowering plants cover about ten percent of the earth’s surface.

But which really came first, the flower or the honeybee? Without honeybees to pollinate flowers, the flowers would never have flourished. And without pollen and nectar from flowers, what would honeybees survive on?

With time, the honeybee developed a symbiotic relationship with flowers. Many flowers in need of pollination developed fragrance and bright colors – even ultraviolet colors – to attract pollinators. In response, the honeybee developed a fantastic sense of smell to enable it to distinguish one nectar and aroma from another. The honeybee also developed eyes that enable it to see most colors Homo sapiens see, and some colors that we don’t see.

beeCALLOUTDid the flowers observe that the honeybees visited brightly-colored flowers more frequently? Flowers also developed nectar positioned below the stamen (the male part of a flower that contains the pollen) as a reward for the pollinator. Did the honeybees learn that certain flowers produced sweet nectar that made a good food source? Did the honeybees then start to visit those flowers much more frequently?

Further, the flower developed pollen that was very fine and lightweight, enabling the honeybee to easily transport the pollen from flower to flower. Or, did the honeybee only carry the very fine and lightweight pollen, such that the flower gradually began to produce only this type of pollen?  Did the flower adapt to the honeybee or vice versa?

Now scientists are starting to believe that the honeybee came into being about the same time as flowers. Which came first, the flower or the honeybee, is difficult to answer. And although there are birds, flies, other bees, butterflies and moths that are pollinators, none of them pollinates to the same degree as the highly-adaptable and highly-efficient honeybee. It has locked out most other competitors due to its efficiency, and the honeybee has adapted, and readapted, to maintain its current position as The Greatest Pollinator. Maybe that’s why, in part, Mohammad Ali, “The Greatest,” likened himself to a bee.

What a truly unique creation the honeybee is. While honeybees are responsible for about ninety-five percent of all pollination, it is frightening and shocking to learn that they are dying at an alarming rate. Without the honeybee, our survival as a species is unlikely. There are several plants that only a honeybee pollinates, such as almonds and most other nuts, along with most fruits and vegetables. It is estimated that honeybees are responsible for bringing us every third bite we eat. Imagine the impact to agriculture. Further, imagine an earth with almost no flowers.

The threats to the honeybee are numerous and varied, such as Varroa mites, colony collapse disorder, and the use of systemic pesticides. If you want to help the honeybee, start by using fewer pesticides and planting more flowers.  There is currently a proposal with the EPA from pesticide manufacturer Syngenta, which would allow the widespread use of bee-killing pesticides.  If you disagree with this proposal, click here to the let the EPA know.

You can also consider becoming a beekeeper. There are many local beekeeper organizations and you can get more information through the American Beekeeping Federation www.abfnet.org.



By Greg Clements
Photo by Chris Edwards