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The Buzz on Pollination

Have you ever heard bees gathering pollen from flowers? Sometimes it is a soft or a loud buzzing sound that lets you know they are hard at work. Their sound may be a clue to the type of bee that is foraging and the kind of flower it might be visiting.

European honeybees and native bumblebees go about their pollination work in different ways. The European honeybee (Apis melifera) may make its buzzing sound in flight but not necessarily in the process of foraging for pollen. When this bee lands in and climbs through a flower, it gathers pollen by brushing across pollen-producing structures called anthers. The bee can gather pollen more readily from this type of flower because pollen appears to rest on the surface of these open anthers and then deliver that pollen to another similar flower for pollination.

Native bumblebees provide a specific service to tomato flowers, members of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), and blueberry flowers, members of the heath family (Ericaceae). These two plants and their relatives have enclosed anthers. Pollen is released through pores located at the tip or along the body of the anther. The native bumblebee will grasp these enclosed anthers and rapidly contract their flight muscles to shake loose the pollen through these pores. This specific activity is called buzz pollination, referring to the loud buzzing sound created by the bumblebees. The bumblebee will have to work a little harder and may not gather as much pollen from these kinds of flowers, but about 8 percent of the world's estimated 250,000 species of flowering plants require buzz pollination.

The European honeybee is a very important pollinator, and it is equally important to recognize the diversity of native bees and the services they provide. When you are out in your garden looking for pollinators, check out the differences in pollination strategies, noting which kinds of bees visit and the different flowers they choose. Don't "bee" surprised if you see and hear more than two bee species visiting your garden flowers.

— Stephen Brueggerhoff, former Public Programs Manager at the Wildflower Center

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