In mid-July this year my bees were bringing in orange coloured pollen loads. I managed to get some of this pollen load and made them into slides. To my surprise it consisted of, what I thought were, trilete spores which are produced by ferns and bryophytes. See figure.
Palynologists examining the slides also thought they were trilete spores with the exception of Steve Stukins, a palynologist at the Natural History Museum, London. He identified the pollen as Cupania pollen based on fossil pollen from geological samples he has examined from the Cretaceous period, approximately 100 million years ago. Today Cupania is found in tropical regions of South America, mainly in Brazil.
I always thought the place where I lived had its own microclimate, so here is proof that a plant that grows in South America in tropical conditions was growing on the borders of Surrey. Not only that but my bees, and I assume other bees, were collecting pollen from this plant in mid-July and it therefore had some nutritional value to honeybees.
Further research into the Cupania and honeybee association indicated that this was a common pollen type found in honey from parts of Brazil. This indicates that honeybees somehow detect plants producing pollen that has some beneficial value to them. I doesn’t matter where bees are located geographically, there are plants which they recognise and forage for their pollen or plant sugars, including nectar.
On closer inspection of the Cupania pollen collected, I discovered something rather curious. That the pollen was devoid of pollen contents, therefore sterile. Bees are collecting empty pollen grains which must still have some nutritional value. I have a hypothesis about this which I will share in another post. Just to say here that the outer wall of pollen grains, which consists of a protein called sporopollenin, is extremely valuable to honeybees as their only source of a compound called p- coumaric acid which is essential for regulating their immune system.
I think at present there are many well-funded research projects, mainly academic, looking into plants and honeybee associations, pollination, habitat loss and climate change to name a few. However, beekeepers, by using a very simple method, may hold the key in making many discoveries which will determine what honeybees collect and from where. Carried out over the year during foraging, this can lead us to understand the nutritional requirements associated with the health of the colony. Location of bee colonies may also have to been taken into account with regard to plant diversity and areas
that are suited for foraging. Where I live may not be tropical but may contain a large diversity of plant species, mainly introduced by keen gardeners (especially in Surrey), compared to rural areas where there not be such diversity and less foraging areas.
The method I use produces a permanent slide in under one minute, does not uses any hazardous chemicals and is therefore safe. Taking photos to put onto a website can lead to the
identification of pollen by palynologists. Data produced can be used in academic studies covering wide research areas. Over time, such discoveries and associations with plants can lead to a better understanding of the nutritional needs and health of our honeybees.