pollen wild bees and native bees

Bumble bee with mixed pollen

As beekeepers we are used to seeing pollen pellets of a solid color. This is due to the famous “floral fidelity” of honey bees. It means that on any one foraging trip, a honey bee collects pollen from only one species of plant. Floral fidelity is one of the reasons honey bees are such good pollinators: pollen from one plant species is not wasted on another.

Most pollinators are less particular. And even though many of those pollinators are quicker than honey bees when moving from flower to flower, they may jump species in the middle of a foraging trip and thereby lose some of their efficiency.

The pictures below came from my garden yesterday. If you look carefully at the pollen pellet of this bumble bee, you can see that she has collected pollen from at least two species on this trip. The orange pollen (unknown source) is underneath the Ceanothus pollen, which is a cream color. I’ve seen pictures of this phenomenon in books, but this is the first time I’ve seen it in the field.

I was about to delete these out-of-focus bumble bee pics when I just happened to notice the pollen.


Bumble bee with mixed pollen.

Bumble bees frequently mix their pollen loads.

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  • Interesting photos. Glad you didn’t delete them – good call. From my amateurish observations I conclude that, pound for pound, bumble bees are a more efficient pollinator/forager than honey bees. They fly at much lower temperatures, earlier and later in the day, and now your photos suggest that they pollinate, and potentially cross-pollinate, multiple species in one trip. Of course, the honey bees have it in sheer weight of numbers.

    It may be that we are losing honey bees due to the limitations imposed by their foraging habits, whereas bumbles just accept anything in their path. Sadly, mankind has the trump card in this game of survival. We simply deprive the bumble bee of places to live.

  • Rusty – Aaack! Innocently foraging for info on the pollen value of pasture crops,* I found this: http://www.biotech-info.net/JR_testimony.html

    One more alarming reason to resist GMOs. We all figured bees might pick up modified genes in pollen. But who knew, as the author sets out, that gene splicing routinely incorporates a code for antibiotic resistance? Not me!!! And that antibiotic-resistant gene may transfer to gut bacteria in a bee?

    Here the CDC, responsible health care providers and consumers are trying to limit antibiotic use to maximize its effectiveness. And GMO producers are disseminating antibiotic resistance!!

    The implications for bees, and for wider populations, are pretty appalling.

    NB:* timothy grass is making clouds of pollen right now, and I wondered if it was any use to bees. Some pasture seeding decisions coming up.

    Thanks, as always,


    • Nancy,

      I think GMOs are the biggest, most unconscionable trick ever played on planet earth and everything that lives here. We have no idea of their long-term effects on plants, animals, or the environment in general. They are essentially unstudied. I believe they are dangerous and we will come to regret the decision to use them.

      I don’t know whether bees use timothy pollen.

  • I’m a bit confused about this floral fidelity thing. Today I saw bees on clover, roses, and some wildflowers growing in a 4×4 patch in my backyard. The individual bee sticks with one type of flower, but the foragers as a whole are visiting many different flowers. So does floral fidelity just mean a single bee won’t go pollinating willy-nilly?

    • Sarah,

      That’s exactly right. One honey bee sticks with the same species for an entire foraging trip or perhaps many foraging trips during the day. Her sister bees are doing the same with other species. So in a small patch, you may see honey bees on many different plants. It’s up to the individual bee where she goes, but once she makes a decision she sticks with it for at least one trip.

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