English for beekeepers wild bees and native bees

Wednesday wordphile: floral fidelity

Although honey bees are polylectic, which means they visit many different species of flowering plants, they also exhibit floral fidelity, which means that a bee visits only one kind of flower on any given foraging trip. If there are enough flowers of one type available, a honey bee will continue to visit that same kind of flower all day long.

Floral fidelity is one of the main reasons that honey bees are such great pollinators of agricultural crops. When released into an apple orchard, for example, the honey bees will just keep working the apples; they will pay little attention to the weeds flowering at the side of the field or growing between the rows.

Most native bees—while superb pollinators in their own right—will forage on anything they come across, whether it be apples, dandelions, or thistles. However, native bees tend to visit more flowers per minute than honey bees, which partially makes up for being pollen packrats.

These two different foraging patterns go hand-in-hand with different flight ranges. Honey bees can fly for extremely long distances—a trait that allows them to keep searching for that same flower type and, consequently, allows them to pollinate huge tracts of monocropped farmland. Native bees fly only very short distances, so they are compelled to forage on anything they find within their range. (You can think of honey bees as obsessive/compulsive and native bees as pragmatic.)

From the beekeeper’s perspective, floral fidelity allows for the production of varietal honeys. If the honey bees were foraging randomly, it would be much more difficult to harvest a recognizable varietal.

The downside to floral fidelity to the honey bees is this: if the crop they are working has low-quality pollen, most of the pollen coming into the hive during the flowering period of that crop will have the same low-quality. Or if the crop has been treated with a systemic pesticide that resides in pollen, the honey bees will get an extra high dose of the pesticide.

Native bees who mix up their pollen sources as they forage have a better chance of bringing home a “balanced diet”—and one that may not be so heavily loaded with pesticides.

Floral fidelity is also called floral consistency, flower fidelity, and other similar names.

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  • I have such a hard time with pesticides. My grandpa told me a “back in my day” story where farmers would hire kids to go through the rows with tools and pull weeds if needed.

    Also with modern farming there is so much waste! Anyway. Thanks for the info! It all helps!

  • Why don’t I see my bees on the flowering shrubs and trees right by their hive?

    • Heather,

      Honey bees find forage by telling each other about it using the dance language. They use the angle of the sun and the distance as references, but they have a hard time communicating the position of things that are close up. If you want them to find things, you need to place them away from the hives.

      Of course, other reasons could include them not liking the particular tree or shrub that is near their hive. Honey bees are not attracted to all flowers.

  • Thank you Rusty,

    We have pear and inedible apple trees that my husband wants to spray with florel so we aren’t picking up rotting, yellow jacket covered pears and apples all summer long right outside our kitchen window. I am not letting him because I worry about my bees foraging. However, I have not seen a single bee on these trees full of blossoms. But I have another crabapple tree they cover every year that is just about 10 ft closer! Is it ok to give him the go ahead on the two untouched trees? He says I will have to be the rotten pear gatherer if I don’t.