Saturday, February 14, 2009

No Free Lunch

When I sit in the garden and enjoy the bees and other pollinators, there is always so much activity. Not necessarily their numbers, but they are in constant motion, flitting from one flower to another. Now here, now there, now back to here. Originally I used to think that the first visitor had drained the nectar, yet just a second later another pollinator would land on that same blossom and take a sip -- then leave too. I thought, “You guys could save some fly-time if you just stayed longer on one bloom.” Bumblebees seemed to understand this: I’ve seen them grab hold of a zinnia for dear life and stay for hours, sometimes spending the whole night and still be there in the morning. But, for the most part, bees, etc. favor hit-n-run vs. start-a-tab-and-keep-‘em-coming approach to nectar gathering.

I wonder why. A little research turned up some surprising information. In my last post I mentioned that flowering plants and pollinators co-evolved back in the longtime. Turns out that between the two, it is flowering plants that run the show.

Scientists analyzed nectar and found that for bee and other pollinators, blossom eaters and nectar thieves, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Nectar and scent and color are all baits for the real deal: moving pollen from one plant to another, or better, lots of others. This article (one of several I read) explains that flowering plants do not get the best dispersal of pollen if only a few barflies hog the beer so to speak. Plants need lots of pollinators, but too much of a good thing can be just as disastrous as no pollinators at all. If those sweet-smelling blooms are eaten by insects or grazing animals, or taken off the market by the aforementioned barflies, there goes the species. Seems that good bait is a two-edged sword. What’s a pretty flower to do? Simple.

When the mass of the same species are in full bloom, our little flower puts on her prettiest petals, splashes on her most alluring scent, and fills up a nice cup of sweet nectar. Then she grabs a can of Raid….

Raid?? Yep! That baby’s packin’! To discourage the flower itself being eaten, or the barfly effect, plants mix insecticide into the nectar – namely nicotine. The flower-eaters don’t eat many blossoms due to the bitter taste and the flowers are saved. The bees sip the nectar, taste the bitterness, and move on. But they need to feed so they head for another flower where the process is repeated. I would imagine it’s like the quest for coffee. Most coffee smells wonderful, full and rich and inviting. But half of the time the taste does not live up to the promise of the aroma. Do we stop drinking coffee? Nosirree! We keep looking for that perfect cup-a-joe. Pollinators keep looking for that perfect cup of nectar.

So what would happen if bees did find that perfect cup of nectar? Quick, to the lab, Igor! Scientists whipped up a batch of modified plants that wouldn’t produce any nicotine. Results? They found that those plants (placed with normal plants) produced 2 to 5 times fewer seeds as the unmodified plants. Lesson learned: Mom Nature says you gotta take the bitter with the sweet.

Apparently the nicotine does not harm the pollinators; the nectar is still nutritious and good for them. It just leaves an aftertaste – kinda like Aunt Ruth’s infamous soyloaf. A little soyloaf serves a lot of relatives – there's always room at the table as folks move away, sometimes quickly. ;-)

So, when Spring finally gets here and I go back outside to watch the bees and butterflies, I’ll know why those little guys are so busy. And I’ll probably be just as busy, hopefully sipping what might turn out to be that tantalizing, ever-illusive perfect cup of coffee. Until those warm days are here again, cheers! Happy Valentine's Day to all!


  1. I've thought the same thing about how can the bees still find something after so many other visitors have just been there. Very interesting post!
    Happy Valentine's Day!

  2. Thanks, Catherine. Enjoyed your 'heart' blog today. Happy Valentine's Day to you too. :-D

  3. As I said it on Cottage, I think this story of "No free lunch" is fascinating! Being able to understand all these "scientific matters" is awesome to me!

  4. That's interesting, but I feel sorry for the bees if nothing tastes good to them. Do the first sips taste good?

  5. The articles don't say if 'taste' was really involved or if some kind of 'reaction' to the minuscule amount of nicotine makes them head for another blossom. It's all so fascinating!

  6. this is fascinating! good analogy with the coffee. thanks for the information.

  7. Ginger, yeah, can't go wrong with a good coffee analogy. I'm still seeking the 'perfect cup'.


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