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.