Most of the time bees can access pollen pretty easily on the anther of a flower, like in the video above; it is passively released by the flower and coats the hairs of pollinators that come to the flower to drink its nectar and gather its pollen.
However, about eight percent of flowering plants have pores or valves that seal the pollen in, because it is costly in energy for the plant to produce, and these plants try to conserve energy by conserving pollen. The tube-like anther is only accessible through a small pore at the tip. The pollen inside cannot escape the male anther to fertilize female stamen in its species unless a bee opens up that valve or pore to get to the pollen.
Luckily, some bees have just that special talent.
The way these native bees can access this tightly-held pollen is through a process called sonication, otherwise known as buzz pollination. For plants such as tomatoes, potatoes, blueberries, cranberries and eggplants — this is the only way they can release pollen.
How it works
A sonicating bee, such as those in the Bombus genus of bumblebees or the Xylocopa genus of large carpenter bees, lands on a flower with sealed pollen. It will detach its wings from its flight muscles, tucking them into a resting position along its thorax, and will grab hold of the anther with its forelegs and mandible (or jaw). Using its incredibly strong flight muscles, it will begin vibrating the anther.
These high frequency vibrations will cause the pollen grains in the anther to bounce up and down, gaining so much energy that they blast out, sometimes in a visible cloud. The pollen coats the bee, which wants the pollen to take back to the nest as a protein source for its offspring, and also floats around and lands on stamens, fertilizing them. The bee will also lose grains of pollen as it goes from flower to flower, also completing the pollination process to help plants make seeds.
A special skill
Not all bees have the skill of sonication. Honeybees don’t. And the bees that do are incredibly strong. For instance, a bumblebee flaps its wings about 190 times per second. That is more than 50 times in the time it takes a human to blink just once. The fastest hummingbird only flaps its wings 90 times per second.
If you love the fact that bees are to thank for some of your favorite foods, we’re with you. Check out our the new Pollinator Paradise addition to the Dickinson County Nature Center where we focus on the importance of pollinators and how we can help bring back our pollinator populations.