24 May 2017

The importance of bees as pollinators

Pollination is one of the most important biological processes on our planet. And bees one of the most important pollinators. But what is pollination and why is it so important?

Chives in the Kitchen Garden

What is pollination? 

Pollination is the transfer of the pollen grain from the stamen (the male part of the flower) to the stigma and egg (the female part of the flower).  

It is through pollination that plants are fertilised and able to produce the next generation of plants, including the fruit and crops we eat. 

Since plants can’t move, they have to employ other tactics to ensure pollen is carried from flower to flower.  

Some plants rely on wind and water, most flowering plants reproduce through animal pollination. 

Around 75% of crop plants require some degree of animal pollination, including many of our everyday fruit and vegetables. Of all the different animals and insects that serve as pollinators, the most important are bees.  

Bees and pollination 

In the past we relied on wild bees to pollinate our crops but wild bee populations are now in decline due to disease, extreme weather, competition from invasive species, habitat loss and climate change.  

To make up for the decline in wild pollinators, farmers buy in commercially bred bumblebees and put them on farmland hoping that the bees will forage on the crops they want pollinated. This method is expensive, could spread disease and the introduced bees might forage on food that wild pollinators need. 

Kew and bees 

At Kew we’re working on developing a technology which incorporates a small amount of caffeinated nectar alongside an artificial odour of strawberry flowers. We know that caffeine improves bees’ memory so that they are more likely to remember a food source.   

This means that when the commercialised bees are in transit they’re already learning to associate good food reward with the smell of strawberries, so that when they arrive on the farm they are focused on strawberries, making them more efficient and ensuring they do not take food from wild pollinators. 

This, however, is just a short-term solution. What we really need is to restore our eco-systems and create landscapes to support diverse flora and fauna.