Summertime musings: the relationship between flowers and bees

Summertime musings: the relationship between flowers and bees

Clearlake : CA : USA | Aug 03, 2012 at 12:37 PM PDT
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The relationship between flowers and bees is a well known love affair called mutualism—they need each other in a unique way for flowers to produce seeds and for bees to make honey. When bees pollinate, they knock some of the pollen onto the sternum, which makes seeds. So without bees, there would be no flowers, and without flowers there would be no honey. Bees travel from flower to flower to collect nectar and in the process carry pollen from flower to flower. Honeybees use the prized nectar to make honey.

Bees, birds, bats, beetles and butterflies are called pollinators because they carry pollen and seeds as they fly from one flower to another fertilizing as they go, so plants can grow and produce not only beautiful flowers, but also food. Cross-pollination accomplished by mainly bees contributes to 30 percent of the world’s crops and 90 percent of wild plants. Food crops would die without bees to spread their “seeds of love.”

In the 1990s scientists discovered 220 million year old fossilized logs of the Petrified Forest in Eastern Arizona had traces of what resembled nests of modern bees. But flowers have only been dated half as long ago. The concept that bees existed before flowers was before this discovery unthinkable because it was assumed they evolved together. Contrary to popular belief, bees were buzzing around the planet 140 million years before flowers bloomed into existence.

The overarching question is what were those bees doing before angiosperms (flowers) appeared? Either flowers actually appeared much earlier than scientists thought, or the first bees did without flowers for a long time, feeding on and pollinating cone-bearing, woody plants known as gymnosperms, a group that includes conifers, cycads and ferns, according to a 1995 New York Times article.

The current research favors the elegant bee gracing the earth first. "This new evidence suggests it was probably the other way around, and that insects like bees and wasps may have facilitated the evolution and diversification of angiosperms," said Stephen T. Hasiotis, a paleobiologist at the United States Geological Survey in Denver and a doctoral student in geology at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

An Ohio State University paleobotanist Dr. Thom Taylor argues early bees did not require angiosperms and furthered the concept that bees could exist in the world of ferns, conifers and cycads and gymnosperms, which were the dominate trees and plants in the Triassic Period.

The pollen of these plants is normally scattered by wind, not by insects and birds. But Dr. Taylor said, "It would not surprise me to learn that bees and fern plants developed a relationship that involved pollination."

Flowers, therefore, evolved to compete for the attention of insects that already existed and were not responsible for a new ecological niche. This answers why flowers evolved into many alluring, vivid colors.

"Primitive angiosperms probably took advantage of this bee and wasp behavior by developing various colors of flowers as a pollination strategy to compete with gymnosperms," the researcher said. "Over time, most of the insects actually shifted from gymnosperms to the flowering plants."

Bees came first, but flowers changed the world

The first plants came from the chemical mix of the sea along the continental shelves whose verdant fingers rose and crept into streams and rivers where they clung to swamps and river systems seeking life. Then a little before the close of the Age of Reptiles, there was an explosion lasting millions of years. This is when flowers were born—suddenly in a violent burst flowers changed the earth’s expression.

During the Age of Reptiles, it was a world of giants. Trees were slow-growing and immense. Redwood groves were king with stiff, formal green vegetation. Grass was yet to appear and there were no rolling plains or daisies filling meadows or sweet woodruff to crush underfoot releasing it’s aroma of sweet hay. The dawning of flowers was only a heartbeat away.

The English poet Francis Thompson wrote that one could not pick a flower without troubling a star. Indeed, the variety, interconnectedness and complexity of life is intuitively sensed in every flower. When the first inconspicuous flower appeared it was most likely pollinated by the wind, but it did not take long for insects to discover her sacred nectar.

The hand that contemplated a stone for a tool also gathered a handful of seeds, and together they fed great nations, built superior cities and, as natural science writer Loren Eiseley put it in 1957, “changed the face of the world and made it ours.”


The Immense Journey, 1957, “How Flowers Changed the World,” Loren Eiseley, (1907-1977)

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Dava Castillo is based in Clearlake, California, United States of America, and is an Anchor on Allvoices.
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  • 	Contrary to popular belief, bees were buzzing around the planet 140 million years before flowers, which is only a wink in geologic time. 


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