Jul 5

Most pollinator-plant relationships follow the same trend – animal lands on plant, gets covered in pollen which it then transfers onto another plant of the same species – but there are many plants that go against the norm, and have a weird and wonderful method of ensuring that their pollen gets to where it needs to be.

A honey bee may be the first thing that springs to your mind when you think of pollination – be prepared for this to change!


Plants in the Araceae family, also known as ‘aroids’, act as a kind-of bed and breakfast for insects. These plants attract a wide range of insect pollinators by producing scents which vary between rotting flesh and sweet fruit, and many produce heat to help with the dispersal of their aroma. Most aroid species will trap any insect that comes into contact with its leaves inside a dungeon-like structure which it is unable to escape from. While the insect is trapped, the plant produces nectar to feed it and keep it alive and after 24 hours the male flowers mature and cover the insect with pollen. The dungeon then collapses and allows the pollen-covered insect to escape and find another aroid to pollinate, starting the process again!

The flower of titan arum, the plant that produces the world’s largest inflorescence


Orchids are an extremely diverse plant group and their methods of attracting pollinators are variable between species. Most orchids just have one or two dedicated pollinators which can be bees, wasps, flies, ants or butterflies, and this means that if becomes extinct, the other will likely share the same fate.

Ophrys species have a very sneaky way of attracting male bees to their flowers. They have evolved their scent over time to mimic the pheromones released by a female bee and even have a similar appearance, which led to the designation of their common name – ‘bee orchids’. When a male picks up the scent, it lands on the flower of the bee orchid and repeatedly attempts copulation, all the while being covered in the plant’s pollen. Another type of orchid that encourages bee romance are bucket orchids, which produce a cologne for male bees that is irresistible to females.

Another orchid, Oncidium planilabre, has a less romantic approach to attracting male bees, and mimics a male rather than a female, which encourages attacks from male bees. When the male bee attacks the orchid, it is covered in pollen which is then transferred to the next bee-like flower that it takes a dislike to.

The bumble bee orchid, an Ophrys species

Another orchid with a strange pollination method is Holcoglossum amesianum. This amazing plant has the capacity to move its flowers 360 degrees to transfer pollen onto its stigma and does not rely on any external forces whatsoever.

Fig wasps and figs

Fig wasps and figs have a completely dependent symbiotic relationship. The fascinating pollination cycle of the fig tree begins when a female wasp enters one of the fruits through an extremely small opening, often losing its wings and antennae on its way in. Once inside, the female lays her eggs and dies shortly after. When the eggs have hatched, the male and female offspring have very different functions. The wingless males explore the inside of the fig, trying to find a female to mate with and once they have mated, they bore exit pathways to the outside of the fig then also die. The female offspring, once they have mated, collect pollen from the male flowers inside the fig and then use the pathways created by the males to escape. The females then search for a new fig fruit to pollinate and the whole cycle begins again.

The fruit of Ficus carica, a species of fig

Axinaea species

Plants in the Axinaea genus have large, bulb-like structures on their stamens which entice passing birds. As the bird touches the structure with its bill, it explodes and covers the bird’s face with pollen. As the bird continues to forage, the pollen is transferred onto other plants.

Axinaea sessilifolia

Giant Amazon water lily

At the beginning of its pollination cycle, the giant Amazon water lily produces female flowers which have white petals and emit a strong fruity scent that attracts beetles. The flower itself is around 10 degrees Celsius warmer than the ambient temperature – another factor that makes it irresistible to beetles. When the beetles arrive and begin to feed on the nectar, the flower slowly closes and traps the beetles inside. Throughout the day the petals of the flower turn pink and it undergoes a sex change, turning into a male and covering the beetles in pollen. When the flower eventually reopens, it releases the pollen-covered beetles who are then free to continue their search for nectar.


Find out more about pollination and the slightly more ‘normal’ approach that most plants have on our new topic page.

Jul 19

Bumblebees imported from Europe infected with parasites pose a serious threat to the UK’s wild and honey bee populations, according to a new study.

Honey bee image

Honey bees are vital pollinators

Deadly imports

Each year, more than a million bumblebee colonies are imported by countries across the globe to pollinate a variety of crops, with the UK alone importing between 40,000 and 50,000. Although the colonies are said by the global suppliers to be disease free, a recent study in the Journal of Applied Ecology has found that more than three-quarters of those imported into the UK each year are riddled with parasites.

Bees and disease

Scientists purchased 48 commercially produced bumblebee colonies, each containing up to 100 bees, from three different European suppliers during 2011 and 2012, and screened each one for parasite DNA. The results showed that an alarming 77% of the colonies were infected with parasites, a situation which has serious implications for the health of the UK’s native wild bees and honey bees, many of which are already suffering severe declines.

These parasites will undoubtedly be spilling over into wild and honey bees and very probably having negative effects on them,” said lead researcher Professor William Hughes, from the University of Sussex. “It is no great leap to think that damage is already being done.”

Honey bee worker image

Parasites carried by imported bumblebee colonies may pose a serious risk to the UK’s native bee populations


The results of the study revealed that the imported bumblebee colonies carried several different parasites, five of which were found in the bees themselves and three in the pollen provided by the suppliers as food. These parasites included three main bumblebee parasites (Crithidia bombi, Nosema bombi and Apicystis bombi), three honey bee parasites (Nosema apis, Ascosphaera apis and Paenibacillus larvae), and two which infect both bumblebees and honey bees (Nosema ceranae and deformed wing virus).

With the decline of pollinating insects in the UK in recent years, food producers are becoming increasingly reliant upon imported bees.

Over a million colonies are imported globally – it’s a huge trade,” said Professor Hughes. “A surprisingly large number of these are produced in factories, mainly in Eastern Europe. We couldn’t grow tomatoes in this country without these bumblebees. We sought to answer the big question of whether colonies that are being produced now have parasites and, if so, whether those parasites are actually infectious or harmful.”

Buff-tailed bumblebee image

Scientists are calling for stricter regulations regarding the import of bumblebees

Severe consequences

The potential impacts on native wild bee and honey bee species could be extremely severe, from harming the bees’ ability to learn, which is vital for finding food, to killing them outright. In Argentina, native bee species are already being driven to extinction as a result of imported parasites, and the authors of the recent study are recommending that urgent action is required in the UK to improve the effectiveness of disease screening and to close damaging loopholes.

Call for action

Scientists are calling for authorities to strengthen measures to prevent the importation of parasite-infected bumblebee colonies, by introducing proper colony checks upon arrival in the UK. While there are strict regulations in the UK regarding the import of non-native bumblebees, including ensuring that the colonies are disease free and are only kept in hives from which the queens cannot escape, no such regulations apply to imported colonies of native bee subspecies.

Bees and other pollinators are responsible for the production of three-quarters of the world’s food crops, but heavy pesticide use, rising disease, and starvation due to habitat destruction are all contributing to worrying declines in many species.

The introduction of more or new parasite infections will, at a minimum, exacerbate this, and could quite possibly directly drive declines,” said Professor Hughes.

Honey bee image

Honey bee in flight, laden with pollen

Pesticide ban

Earlier this week, the EU voted to successfully suspend the use of fipronil, a common pesticide, due to the serious risk it poses to bees. Currently used in more than 70 countries, this insect nerve agent will be banned from use on corn and sunflowers in Europe from the end of 2013.

Tonio Borg, European Commissioner for Health, said, “In the aftermath of the restriction on use of neonicotinoids, I pledged to do my utmost to protect Europe’s honey bee population, and today’s agreement with member states not only delivers on that pledge but marks another significant step in realising the commission’s overall strategy to tackling Europe’s bee decline.”

Read more on this story at BBC News – Imported Bumblebees pose ‘parasite threat’ to native bees and The Guardian – Imported bumblebees pose risk to UK’s wild and honeybee population – study.

Find out more about honey bees on ARKive.

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author


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