How bumblebees make flowers bloom

Brilliant bees: The ancient Greeks thought bees were sacred and printed them on gold coins. © Alamy

Can we learn from bees? Honeybees are organised and work in teams. Bumblebees work alone, but are great problem solvers. They have developed an ingenious way to trick plants into flowering.

What’s happening

After months in hibernation, the bumblebee is hungry. Spring usually boasts flowers filled with delicious pollen to feast on but, this time, the bee has emerged too early. There are no flowers and no food. Luckily, the bee has a trick to coax open an unwilling plant – it must bite a hole in a leaf.

Find out more

Humans and bees have a relationship going back millennia. Palaeolithic man started collecting honey from wild hives, and bees were so important to the Romans that they made laws about them.

Despite this long history, we are still learning about bees. Researchers have now found that hungry bumblebees trick plants into flowering early by making tiny moon-shaped cuts in the leaves.

It is unclear how the bees know to make holes, or why the process works. When the team imitated the bees by cutting holes, they were unsuccessful. The team is studying the process further. One theory is that bees have chemicals in their saliva that encourage early flowering. If true, this could lead to new methods of plant cultivation.

Can we learn from bees?

Some say…

Of course, we can! Bees live in organised hives. Each one has a specific job to do and role to play in society. Bees build their homes, make their food, and work together in excellent teams. This new research shows that they are also problem solvers. We should be inspired by the way bees find methods to survive and thrive while working together.

Others think…

Not really. We should be careful not to anthropomorphise bees. They are insects and we should not think of them with human personalities. They work together in teams because they have evolved to work together. They have probably also evolved alongside plants to encourage them to flower. It is a survival method – not something that can teach us.

You Decide

  1. Can animals be role models?

Activities

  1. Make a poster of a beehive to show how bees work together. Explain and label how the hive is organised with a queen, workers, and drones.

Some People Say...

“If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live.”

Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

What do you think?

Word Watch

Hibernation
A period of time during the winter months when an animal goes into a deep sleep.
Pollen
A fine powdery substance produced by flowers. It is an important food source for bees.
Coax
To gently persuade (usually someone) to do something.
Millennia
The plural of a millennium, which means 1,000 years.
Palaeolithic
An early part of the Stone Age, when humans used basic stone tools.
Cultivation
Preparing land for farming and growing particular plants and crops.
Anthropomorphise
To give human characteristics or behaviour to an animal.

Subjects

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