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Bee on flower covered in pollen

Bee on flower covered in pollen (JLGutierrez, iStockphoto)

STEM in Context

Pollinators are Important!

Let’s Talk Science
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Video Text Images
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Summary

Insects and other animals that are pollinators of plants play an important role in ecosystems.

When you think of bees, what do you think of? You probably think of pollination, or more importantly, honey! But what about butterflies or hummingbirds? Do you think of pollination? You should, because they are also important pollinators.

Honeybees are very important pollinators. We hear a lot about them in the news. This is because of colony collapse disorder (CCD). Around 2006, scientists and beekeepers began to notice that honeybee populations were going down. Bees were leaving their colonies, and no one knew why. Some scientists blamed parasites, like mites. Other scientists blamed pesticides called neonicotinoids. Whatever the reason, CCD started to get better around 2013.

Bees are going extinct...but not the ones you think (2018) by Verge Science (6:53 min.).

The problem is, honeybees aren’t the only pollinators out there. Things for honey bees might be getting better, but other pollinators still may still be in trouble.

Let’s look at what pollination is. Then, let’s look at some of the problems that the different pollinators can face.

What is pollination?

About 75% of flowering plants need to be pollinated so they can reproduce. That includes about 35% of the crops people harvest and eat around the world. Some plants are pollinated by animals known as pollinators. Pollinators are animals that carry pollen from one plant to another. Pollen fertilizes a plant’s eggs. A flower’s pollen is on a part of the stamen called the anther. When a pollinator lands on a flower to collect nectar, pollen is transferred to the body or legs of the pollinator. When the pollinator lands on another flower, the pollen rubs off on a part of the flower called the stigma. The stigma is a part of the plant’s pistil, which also contains its style and ovaries. The pollen travels down the style into the ovary. In the ovary, the pollen fertilizes the flower’s eggs (ovules). Eventually, seeds will grow from these fertilized eggs.

Parts of a flower
Parts of a flower (Let’s Talk Science using an image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images via Pixabay).

Did you know? 

The part of the bee that collects pollen is often known as the pollen basket, or more technically, the corbicula.

Bee with large pollen basket/
Bee with large pollen basket (light-coloured object) on leg (Source: Andreas Neumann via Pixabay).

Some pollinators include: 

  • Moths
  • Butterflies
  • Wasps
  • Flies
  • Beetles
  • Ants
Variety of pollinating insects
Pollinating insects. Clockwise from top left: beetle, wasps, moth, ant, butterfly, housefly (© Dr. Jeremy McNeil. Used with permission).

Most pollinators are insects. But birds and bats can be pollinators, too! In many parts of Canada, hummingbirds are important pollinators.

Did you know? 

Plants use their scent and their colouring to attract pollinators. 

What is a solitary pollinator?

Most of us know about bee colonies, where different bees have different roles. The colony works together to collect food, take care of its queen, and raise its young. Bees that live in colonies, like bumblebees and honeybees, are called social pollinators.

You might be surprised to learn that most bees aren’t social pollinators at all. They are solitary pollinators. A solitary pollinator is a pollinator that lives and works alone. Usually, female solitary bees build their own nest. They are responsible for raising their young by themselves.

There are about 20 000 bee species in the world. Scientists think over 90% of these species are solitary pollinators. Some species of solitary bees are specialists. This means they only visit certain types of flowers. Other species are generalists. They do not have a preference for the types of flowers they visit. 

Did you know?

There are about 800 different species of bees in Canada. These bees are responsible for pollinating important crops like flax, alfalfa, and canola. 

Solitary pollinators build nests in all kinds of places. They look for hollow places in tree bark, piles of sticks or twigs, or small spaces in human-made buildings. They may burrow underground or even build nests in empty snail shells!

Did you know? 

Some bee species have both social and solitary members. One of these is the “sweat bee.” They feed on nectar from plants, but they also enjoy snacking on human sweat!

Three types of Canadian solitary bees
Three types of solitary bees found in Canada (left to right): Orchard mason bee (Osmia lignaria) (Source: xpda [CC BY-SA] via Wikimedia Commons); Green sweat bee (Agapostemon texanus) (Source: Bob Peterson [CC BY-SA] via Wikimedia Commons); Patchwork leafcutter bee (Megachile centuncularis) (Source: Line Sabroe from Denmark [CC BY] via Wikimedia Commons).

What problems do solitary bees face?

Solitary bees are wild pollinators. People do not raise them for honey like they do with honeybees.

Wild pollinators face all kinds of threats. Climate change and habitat loss affect them. When farmers use pesticides on crops, they affect all kinds of insects, including wild pollinators.

Did you know? 

In 2019, scientists began worrying that honeybees from the many hobby farms in Calgary, Alberta were outcompeting local native bee populations.

Scientists and farmers can try different things to help social bees. For example, honeybees are often farmed. Farmers can breed more honeybees if their populations get too low. 

But it is much harder to help solitary pollinators. Humans can’t manage them the way they can manage social bees. Also, scientists have not done a lot of research on how to help them. Lots of research has been done on how pesticides harm honeybees. But scientists don’t know how much of the same pesticides harm solitary bees. 

Many scientists say that solitary pollinators need better protection. If the population of social bees gets too low, solitary pollinators may be able to keep our crops reproducing. And keep us fed!

Scientists have found that solitary bees are very good at pollinating certain flowers, like blueberries, each time they visit. But other types of pollinators, like flies, beetles, and butterflies, visit flowers more often than bees do, so they could be very important to crop pollination worldwide. 

Ripe blueberries in the foreground and white blueberry flowers in the background
Ripe blueberries in the foreground and white blueberry flowers in the background to the right (Source: GomezDavid via iStockphoto).

 

You can help pollinator populations in your area. If you have a garden, you can buy a bee box to put in it. Bee boxes provide homes for solitary bees, and a place for them to lay their eggs safely. You can also make your own bee homes by bundling sticks and twigs from your garden together and leaving them in piles. 

Bees like flowers with easy access to pollen, so plant flowers that have large open petals, instead of tiny buds. Most importantly, you can choose not to use pesticides. They are harmful to pests, but they also hurt helpful pollinators like bees.

We can’t live without pollinators, so we all need to help protect them!

Starting Points

Connecting and Relating
  • What kinds of pollinators have you seen on plants?
  • Have you ever seen bees in a garden that don’t look like regular honeybees? 
  • Would you be willing to purchase produce from a farm that uses little or no pesticides because it’s better for the health of bees and other pollinators even if it is more costly? Why/why not?
  • Are you afraid of bees? Does knowing more about bees change how you think about them? How? 
Connecting and Relating
  • What kinds of pollinators have you seen on plants?
  • Have you ever seen bees in a garden that don’t look like regular honeybees? 
  • Would you be willing to purchase produce from a farm that uses little or no pesticides because it’s better for the health of bees and other pollinators even if it is more costly? Why/why not?
  • Are you afraid of bees? Does knowing more about bees change how you think about them? How? 
Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment
  • How could climate change affect the health and activities of pollinators? 
  • Scientists are experimenting with using drones as pollinators. If scientists can come up with a technology that can do the work of pollinators, should we worry about pollinators at all? Why or why not?
  • The use of pesticides makes it less expensive and easier for a farmer to produce food crops. Should there be a ban on the use of pesticides that can hurt species such as bees and songbirds? Why/why not?
Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment
  • How could climate change affect the health and activities of pollinators? 
  • Scientists are experimenting with using drones as pollinators. If scientists can come up with a technology that can do the work of pollinators, should we worry about pollinators at all? Why or why not?
  • The use of pesticides makes it less expensive and easier for a farmer to produce food crops. Should there be a ban on the use of pesticides that can hurt species such as bees and songbirds? Why/why not?
Exploring Concepts
  • List some different types of pollinators. 
  • What is Colony Collapse Disorder? What do scientists believe causes this disorder? Why is it a problem?
  • Describe the differences between a social pollinator and a solitary pollinator. 
  • Why is it important to have a diversity of pollinators in an environment? 
  • What steps can be taken to help pollinators such as solitary bees? 
Exploring Concepts
  • List some different types of pollinators. 
  • What is Colony Collapse Disorder? What do scientists believe causes this disorder? Why is it a problem?
  • Describe the differences between a social pollinator and a solitary pollinator. 
  • Why is it important to have a diversity of pollinators in an environment? 
  • What steps can be taken to help pollinators such as solitary bees? 
Nature of Science/Nature of Technology
  • Should governments provide money for scientific research on the causes of, and solutions to, the decline of bee populations? Why/why not?
  • Assume there was scientific research that showed the main cause of the decline of bee populations was due to the practice of monoculture. Would you want to ban this practice? What other information would you want before you made a decision?
Nature of Science/Nature of Technology
  • Should governments provide money for scientific research on the causes of, and solutions to, the decline of bee populations? Why/why not?
  • Assume there was scientific research that showed the main cause of the decline of bee populations was due to the practice of monoculture. Would you want to ban this practice? What other information would you want before you made a decision?
Media Literacy
  • What commercials or advertising have you seen that is about bees? What message(s) was this media giving?
  • Conduct online research to find out more about the different bee campaigns and organizations involved in these campaigns in the media?
  • Why do you think the media focuses so much on declining honeybee populations when there are so many other species of pollinators in trouble?
  • There are many possible reasons for pollinator populations to decrease. But the media has focused a lot on pesticides. Why do you think this is the case?
Media Literacy
  • What commercials or advertising have you seen that is about bees? What message(s) was this media giving?
  • Conduct online research to find out more about the different bee campaigns and organizations involved in these campaigns in the media?
  • Why do you think the media focuses so much on declining honeybee populations when there are so many other species of pollinators in trouble?
  • There are many possible reasons for pollinator populations to decrease. But the media has focused a lot on pesticides. Why do you think this is the case?
Teaching Suggestions
  • This article can be used to support teaching and learning of Biology related to plant reproduction and populations. Concepts introduced include Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), neonicotinoids, pollinators, pollen, fertilizes, stamen, anther, nectar, stigma, pistil, style, ovaries, ovules, corbicula, bee colonies, social pollinators, specialists and generalists.
  • To introduce this topic to students and assess their prior knowledge of this topic, teachers could have students complete an Anticipation Guide learning strategy. Download ready-to-use reproducibles using the Anticipation Guide learning strategy for this article in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats. There is also an answer key with suggested student responses available [PDF].
  • To consolidate learning from this article, teachers could have students compare and contrast social pollinators with solitary pollinators, using a Venn Diagram.
  • Explore an STSE topic based on this article. Teachers could have students use a Pros & Cons Organizer to weigh the positive and negative aspects of banning the use of pesticides that impact on bee populations. Download ready-to-use reproducibles using the Pros & Cons Organizer learning strategy for this article in [Google doc] and [PDF]. 
  • As a hands on extension to this article, teachers could have students Design & Build a Bee House and monitor bee activity around the bee house.
Teaching Suggestions
  • This article can be used to support teaching and learning of Biology related to plant reproduction and populations. Concepts introduced include Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), neonicotinoids, pollinators, pollen, fertilizes, stamen, anther, nectar, stigma, pistil, style, ovaries, ovules, corbicula, bee colonies, social pollinators, specialists and generalists.
  • To introduce this topic to students and assess their prior knowledge of this topic, teachers could have students complete an Anticipation Guide learning strategy. Download ready-to-use reproducibles using the Anticipation Guide learning strategy for this article in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats. There is also an answer key with suggested student responses available [PDF].
  • To consolidate learning from this article, teachers could have students compare and contrast social pollinators with solitary pollinators, using a Venn Diagram.
  • Explore an STSE topic based on this article. Teachers could have students use a Pros & Cons Organizer to weigh the positive and negative aspects of banning the use of pesticides that impact on bee populations. Download ready-to-use reproducibles using the Pros & Cons Organizer learning strategy for this article in [Google doc] and [PDF]. 
  • As a hands on extension to this article, teachers could have students Design & Build a Bee House and monitor bee activity around the bee house.

Learn more

What is pollination?

This page from the Eden Project includes a short video (1:12 min.) and an infographic explaining the process of pollination. 

Honey Bees Can Help Monitor Pollution in Cities (2019) 

This article from The University of British Columbia is about how honey bees can help us find sources of pollution in our cities. This article also contains a short video (1:15 min.). 

The Solitary Bees (2016) 

This video from Team Candiru (17:03 min.) discusses the difference between social and solitary bees and the importance of solitary pollinators. 

Bees of Canada 

York University has an image database of bee species in Canada.

The Simple Truth: We Can’t Live Without Them (2006)

This eight page illustrated PDF handout on pollinators from The Pollinator Partnership talks about how gardeners can help the pollinators thrive.

References

Atkins, E. (2014, May 19). What you can do in your garden to help bees and butterflies. The Globe and Mail.

Batra, S. (1984). Solitary Bees. Scientific American, 250(2), 120-127.

Buzz About Bees. (n.d.). Solitary Bees.

Davison, P. J., & Field, J. (2016). Social polymorphism in the sweat bee Lasioglossum (Evylaeus) calceatum. Insectes Sociaux, 63(2), 327–338. DOI: 10.1007/s00040-016-0473-3

Moss, E. D. (2015, May 11). There’s much more to bees than queens, honey and hives. The Conversation.

Ostiguy, N. (2011). Pests and Pollinators. Nature.

Pearson, G. (2015, May 29). You're Worrying About the Wrong Bees. Wired.

Rader, R. et. al. (2015). Non-bee insects are important contributors to global crop pollination. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(1), 146–151. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1517092112

Rader, R., Saunders, M. & Cunningham, S. (2016, January 25). Not just bees: the buzz on our other vital insect helpers. The Conversation.

United States Department of Agriculture (n.d.). Insects and Pollinators.

United States Environmental Protection Agency (n.d.). Colony Collapse Disorder.