Bumblebees make flowers grow bigger and smell sweeter

When bees pollinate flowers they grow bigger and smell better, scientists have found

Sarah Knapton, science editor
14 MARCH 2017 • 4:00PM Article originally published here

Gardeners have long known the importance of bumblebees and honeybees for pollination, but the insects can also help flowers grow bigger and smell more fragrant, scientists have discovered.

Swiss researchers found that plants evolve differently depending on the insect which is pollinating them.

Tests on a type of cabbage species called field mustard, a close relative of oilseed rape, showed that when pollinated by bumblebees, the plants grew three inches taller than with hover flies in just nine generations.

They also flowered a day earlier and had double the fragrance. And when placed on ultraviolet light, they had more colours which bees can see.

“The traditional assumption is that evolution is a slow process,” said Professor Florian Schiestl.

“But a change in the composition of pollinator insects in natural habitats can trigger a rapid evolutionary transformation in plants.”

The field mustard plants grew three inches (eight cms) taller when pollinated by bees


The change happens because insects differ in their preference for plants. Bees like taller more fragrant plants so will seek out and pollinate those more often than shorter, unfragranced varieties, causing the bigger, smellier plants to thrive.

Flies, alternatively are not so effective at pollination, and so plants will self-pollinate more often, which slows down the emergence of new traits.

The bee pollinated plants (shown on the left) had double the fragrance


Professor Schiestl said the rapid decline of bee populations in Britain could be leading to flowers that do not grow as abundantly or smell as fragrant. In the long term it could also reduce the genetic diversity of plants leaving them more susceptible to disease.

Friends of the Earth (FOE) are currently encouraging gardeners to plant bee-friendly gardens ahead of the Great British Bee count in May and June.

Purple and blue flowering plants are best because they are easier for the bees to see, and different species prefer different shapes of flower, so a mix of snapdragons, lavender, heathers, sunflowers, wallflowers, yarrow and verbena will attract all kinds. They are also drawn to shrubs, trees, fruit and vegetables as well as spring and autumn flowering bulbs.

Bees like purple and blue flowers because they find them easier to see


“Bees are brilliant pollinators – and this study underlines their importance,” said Friends of the Earth bee campaigner Paul de Zylva.

“Bees aren’t the only pollinator, but many plants will not thrive if they are only visited by other insects, as this new research shows.

“But Britain’s bees are under threat, and we can all do more to help them – such as by growing pollinator-friendly plants, avoiding pesticides and turning gardens and other spaces into bee-friendly habitats.

“And you can check out the bees in your garden, park or neighbourhood by taking part in the Great British Bee Count later this spring.”

Gardeners with lawns are also encouraged to leave dandelions and clover to flower for the bees, and a ‘messy corner’ of old wood and leaves will provide shelter. Chemical pesticides should also be avoided, especially those containing bee-harming neonicotinoid pesticides.

Bee expert Professor Simon Potts from the University of Reading said: “Everyone can help our under-threat bees this Spring. Research has already show that our towns and cities can be great places for bees – if the right plants are grown in parks and green spaces.

“With a bit of bee-friendly gardening, and a bit more tolerance of weeds, we can all help to make sure our streets and neighbourhoods are buzzing with these amazing insects.”

The research was published in Nature Communications and to sign up for the bee count visit www.greatbritishbeecount.co.uk.

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Himalayan honeybee produces hallucinogenic honey

Deep in the Himalaya Mountains lives a bee that produces what locals call “mad honey.” Mad, or red honey, is produced by Apis dorsata laboriosa, or Himalayan Cliff Bee. It’s the largest bee in the world and they make an unusual hallucinogenic honey.

Apis dorsata makes honey out of Rhododendron flowers. Rhododendron contain grayanotoxins which is poisonous to humans. Honey made from the poisonous nectar of the Rhododendron is a powerful hallucinogen in humans and has been said to have numerous health benefits.

In small amounts, the honey is relaxing, if a bit intoxicating. It’s been described as rather pleasant. In larger doses, mad honey can cause Rhododendron poisoning, or honey intoxication, which causes vomiting, muscle weakness, and heart irregularities.

Even though it’s harmful in high doses, locals will go to remarkable lengths to get their hands on said mad honey. Check out this brief documentary.

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A taste for honey: Bees in African rock art

Helen Anderson, Project Cataloguer of African Rock Art Image Project, British Museum

In Summer 2014 the green roof of the newly opened World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre (WCEC) at the British Museum became home to a colony of bees. The bees were introduced as part of an initiative by an organisation called Inmidtown – to boost the diminishing population of bees and train Museum staff in the craft of beekeeping. I, along with a number of keen volunteers, have taken up the exciting challenge to look after our bees on the roof on a weekly basis until September.

Beekeepers from the Urban Bee Project on the roof of the WCEC building (Photographs: Michael Row, British Museum)

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My own fascination with bees goes back to my childhood in Norfolk. I vividly remember watching their comings and goings on an oversized lavender bush in our garden; an attraction which didn’t wane despite being stung on more than one occasion. However, my role as project cataloguer on the African Rock Art Image Project has firmly established that the human-bee relationship is one that is very likely to be several thousands, if not tens of thousands of years old. Depictions of bees, their nests and the harvesting of honey can be found at rock art sites across the African continent.

Recent genomic studies indicate that the honeybee, Apis mellifera, originated in Asia around 300,000 years ago and rapidly spread across Europe and Africa. While European populations contracted during Ice Ages, African populations expanded during these periods, suggesting environmental conditions were more favourable and that, historically, climate change has had a strong impact on honeybee populations.

Apis mellifera (Photograph: by Muhammad Mahdi Karim (www.micro2macro.net) Facebook Youtube (Own work) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Africa has more rock art relating to bees than any other continent where populations of bees are found (Europe, Asia and Oceania), although there are no secure dates for the origin of these images. Only a few engravings and paintings relating to bees exist in northern Africa, and these are at widely dispersed sites. The African honeybee builds a nest in dark cavities, typically trees. Where there are no suitable trees, such as in the Sahara, bees may nest in termite mounds, rock hollows, depressions or crevices, and the honeycombs of such nests are sometimes visible. In Libya, for example, nests are located in rock fractures in the steep sides of wadis (dried up riverbeds), which can be between 100 and 200 metres high. There are significantly more depictions associated with bees in the rock art south of the Sahara; why this should be the case is not entirely clear – it may be due to environmental conditions. I should, at this point, make the distinction between the activity of beekeeping in which I am engaged, and the more apt term of honey-hunters, which most closely explains the activities seen in the rock art representations of southern and eastern Africa. It has been suggested that historically hive beekeeping was never developed in these regions as there were sufficient nest sites that provided plentiful honey for local communities.

Granite rock shelter in Tanzania with paintings above the head of the man on the left. Sticks form the ladder to enable the men to reach out and extract honey from the bees’ nest within the large cavity. © TARA/David Coulson.(Image not yet catalogued)

The bees’ nest consists of a number of parallel honeycombs built into the cavity, suspended from an upper surface. Honey-hunters would have observed the nest structure when harvesting the combs, perceiving the different shapes and forms they take depending on the angle of entry. For example, in an upright tree trunk, looking at the combs face on they appear as a suspended curved structure (catenary pattern); seen in a tree cavity or in a cavity from below, the ends of the combs look like oval or elliptical-shaped parallel compartments. These particular composite shapes were termed ‘formlings’ by the German ethnographer and archaeologist Leo Frobenius in the 1930s, and comprise a distinct category of feature in African rock art.

Wild bees' nest showing combs hanging down in catenary curves or elliptical adjacent compartments. (Photo:

Engraved rock art showing feature similar to catenary pattern of bees' nest. Loumet Asli, Ouarzazate Province, Morocco. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson)

Fifty-six catenary patterns have been found at thirty-eight rock art sites, only five of which are in northern Africa. Catenary patterns are the easiest bee-related image to depict when engraving and are found at one site in Algeria and four in Morocco. Painted rock art of nested catenary curves, possibly representing bees’ nests, sometimes depicts clusters of small crosses which bear resemblance to a group of flying bees.

Two sets of nested curves. The lower set of curves has black dots (maybe bees?) between curved lines. Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa. © TARA/David Coulson. Image not yet catalogued.

More than 300 depictions of formlings can be found at over 220 sites – over 95% of which come from Zimbabwe alone. Studies of honeybee nests have been compared to artistic representations of catenary patterns and formlings, and suggest that depictions of both were originally based on observations of bees’ nests made by the producers of rock art.

Painted rock art showing carefully drawn ‘formling’ with five ovals surrounded by cloud of tiny red crosses (perhaps bees?). Two figures in the middle of the formling are facing each other with arms outstretched (maybe they are harvesting?). Matopo Hills, Zimbabwe. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

The harvesting of honey in rock paintings shows honey-hunters in groups, sometimes using ladders to reach the nests. In one painting from Zimbabwe, fire or smoke, which was used to ward off the bees, is depicted.

Painting of a seated figure with a large headdress, apparently surrounded by insects – possibly bees. From near Thawi, Kondoa, Tanzania. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

In southern Africa, shamans of the San people describe being stung by bees while in a trance-like state (Lewis-Williams, 2001); and in the Kalahari Desert, the San dance when bees are swarming which they believe strengthens the efficacy of the dance. Examples of such dances are depicted in painted rock art, where bees are painted on people’s bodies and limbs. For the San, bees and honey are highly potent symbols.

Painted rock art showing large mythical animal with paws and long curved trunk surrounded by tiny crosses – perhaps representing bees. Drakensberg Mounatins, South Africa. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

My own forays into beekeeping are in their initial stages and I am looking forward to learning about these productive insects and helping them to thrive in their increasingly endangered habitats; but it is thought-provoking that our taste for honey reaches back across the millennia.


For more information about the project, please visit our project pages on the British Museum website: britishmuseum.org/africanrockart.

The African rock art image project is supported by The Arcadia Fund.


Further reading

Crane, Eva, 2001, The Rock Art of the Honey Hunters, Cardiff: International Bee Research Association.

Dixon, Luke, forthcoming, A Time There Was: A Story of Rock Art, Bees and Bushmen.

Kidd, Andrew, B. and Schrimpf, Berthold, 2000, ‘Bees and bee-keeping’, in R. Blench, Kevin C. MacDonald (eds), The Origins and Development of African Livestock: Archaeology, Genetics, Linguistics and Ethnography, London: Routledge.

Lewis-Williams, D., 2001, ‘Brainstorming images: neuropsychology and rock art research’, in David S. Whitley (ed.), Handbook of Rock Art Research, California: Altamira Press, pp. 332–60.

Mguni, Siyakha, 2006, ‘King’s monuments: identifying “formlings” in southern African San rock paintings’, in Antiquity, 80: 583–98.

Wallberg, A., Han, F., Wellhagen, G., Dahle, B., Kawata, M., Haddad, N., Simões, Z.L.P., Allsopp, M.H., Kandemir. I., De La Rúa, P., Pirk, C.W., Webster, M.T., 2014, ‘A worldwide survey of genome sequence variation provides insight into the evolutionary history of the honeybee Apis mellifera’, in Nature Genetics, 46: 1081–88.

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Gold honeybees found in treasure trove

Golden honeybee jewellery found in treasure trove

Childeric’s tomb was discovered in 1653 and contained spectacular gold artifacts, including over 300 beautiful gold and garnet cloisonné bees, as well as a gold and garnet sword hilt.

The find was documented and illustrated by J.J. Chifflet in 1665. The treasure was passed down through the ages, first to Louis XIV, and then to to Napoleon. Finally, Childeric’s hoard had been stored in a back room in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, where it had remained, largely forgotten about. In 1831 thieves broke into the library and stole Childeric’s treasure, along with hundreds of pounds of gold artifacts.

Most of the treasure was eventually recovered, but a significant portion had been melted down, including almost everything from Childeric’s tomb. In the end, all that was left were Childeric’s two little gold honeybees.

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New beehive design

This newly designed beehive looks pretty awesome and I really like the ethical approach that the designers are using to get the product into the market. The Flow Hive is a specialised beehive designed to allow automatic mechanical honey extraction from the hive frames, without the complicated honey extraction processes.

Flow Hive

Flow Hive

Flow Hive makes harvesting honey as simple as turning a tap. It’s so much easier for the beekeeper and so much easier on the bees. The bees don’t even seem to notice when you turn the Flow Frames and watch as 3kg of honey pours out into your jar from each one.

Of course there is more to beekeeping than just harvesting honey. You still need to look after your bees and do all the normal things to keep your hives happy and healthy. If you’re new to beekeeping you’ll quickly find it’s a fascinating, rewarding and addictive hobby. There is always more to learn.

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Sick honeybees may be nursed by doctors

Article originally published here here
By Richard Gray
22 October 2014

They are among the most industrious creatures on the planet, but honeybees still struggle when they’re ill. Once a disease takes hold inside a hive, the bees can become sluggish and disorientated, and many may die.

Now it seems honeybees may have a way of helping to keep their workforce healthy – by employing bees that feed “medicinal honey” to other members of the hive.

A group of worker bees called “nurse bees”, if they are infected with a parasite, selectively eat honey that has a high antibiotic activity, according to Silvio Erler of the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Halle, Germany and his colleagues.

These bees are also responsible for feeding honey to the larvae and distributing it to other members of the colony. So it’s possible they are the hive’s doctors, prescribing different types of honey to other bees depending on their infection. If that is true, it could be a big part of how bees fight disease.

Honey and Herbal tea on wooden background - summer, health and organic food concept

Doctor, I’m sick, could you prescribe me some honey? (Credit: The Picture Pantry / Alamy)

In Erler’s study, nurse bees infected with a gut parasite called Nosema ceranae were given a choice of honeys. Three were made from the nectar of plants – black locust, sunflower and linden trees – while a fourth was honeydew honey made from the secretions of scale insects or aphids. Each of the honeys was known to have antibiotic activity.

Bees with greater levels of infection tended to eat more of the sunflower honey, which had the strongest antimicrobial activity. It reduced the level of infection in the bees that ate it by 7%, compared to the honey from the linden trees.

“Honeys are full of micronutrients, alkaloids and secondary plant compounds that are good for both bees and humans alike,” says Mike Simone-Finstrom of North Carolina State University in Raleigh. One study suggested they can increase the activity of honeybees’ immunity genes, boosting their ability to fight disease.

A separate study from September by Erler’s group suggests that different honeys are effective against different diseases. While sunflower honey is good at preventing the growth of bacteria that cause American foulbrood in bees, it is less effective against bacteria associated with European foulbrood. However, linden honey was more effective against these bacteria.

Disease spreads fast in densely-packed beehives

Disease spreads fast in densely-packed beehives (Credit: Todd Huffman, CC by 2.0)

“The in-hive worker bees might be in an exceptionally important position to distribute honey selectively in the colony that affects their own health but potentially also that of other nestmates,” says Erler.

His team is now investigating whether nurse bees select honeys from different sources depending on the infection they are fighting. If this turns out to be the case, it will reveal a level of medical care within honeybee hives not seen before.

With honeybees under threat from disease, climate change, pollution and new farming techniques, Erler says their medicinal abilities could prove invaluable. “Apiculturists might take advantage of specific honey flows to protect their colonies against specific diseases,” he says.

But we mustn’t overstate the medicinal role of honey, says Francis Ratnieks of the University of Sussex in Brighton. “If after six days of feeding just one type of honey you only get a 7% effect on infection, I would reckon that the effect in a hive would be less. Bees collect honey primarily as a food supply, not as medication.”

Dead honeybees are a source of dangerous infections

Dead honeybees are a source of dangerous infections (Credit: Jannis Tzimopulos / Alamy)

Honeybees do have other sources of medicine besides honey. For example, they collect resin from plants and incorporate it into their nests, where it may help combat fungal parasites. In 2012 Simone-Finstrom and a colleague showed that bees infected with fungal spores collected more of the resin.

Honeybees, along with other insects like ants, also display “hygienic” behaviour: workers carry dead members of the colony far away to avoid an infection spreading. Ratnieks is trying to breed honeybees that do this more often, to produce colonies that are more resistant to disease.

Bees are far from the only animals that can self-medicate. While humans reach for an aspirin to combat a headache, many primates including chimpanzees eat bitter bark and rough leaves that may help kill off parasites in their guts. Goats eat vegetation high in tannins when they are suffering from intestinal worms. Woolly bear caterpillars fight parasitic flies by eating plants rich in toxic chemicals, while wood ants incorporate antimicrobial resin from conifer trees in their nests.

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Pollen sacs on honeybee


The creamy coloured lump on the back leg of this honeybee is pollen. Bee’s have special hairs on the back of their legs that form little baskets into which it puts the pollen before flying it back to the hive or nest.

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