Synopsis : Why do bees collect pollen of only one type when foraging? Why do they forage repeatedly in the same area? What has coffee got to do with this?
Foraging is what my bees should be doing now. The summer nectar flow should be strong – lime, blackberry, rosebay willow herb (RBWH, fireweed) then heather – it’s bonanza time.
But note the qualifier ’should’.
So far, it’s not looking promising.
The lime was hopeless, the blackberry flowered well but doesn’t appear to have yielded much, the fireweed is nearly over (early) and the heather … well, let’s not prejudge anything, but I’m not hopeful.
Not only do those four plants/trees yield nectar, but they also produce pollen and you can often tell what the bees are foraging on by the colour of the packed corbiculae on the hind legs of returning workers.
Despite their overlapping flowering periods the pollen baskets are almost always a single colour. For example, you don’t get deep purple pollen baskets from RBWH speckled with much paler borage pollen, despite the fact you can find both flowering – in a field and its margins – simultaneously.
This is because honey bees tend to forage on one plant species 1 on any foraging trip. This feature of the foraging habit of honey bees is termed constancy.
If you marked a foraging worker on a patch of RBWH, watched it fly off to the hive and waited a bit you might well see the marked bee return to the same patch of RBWH and start collecting pollen or nectar again.
This is not constancy but is instead termed fidelity.
Both fidelity and constancy have consequences for plant pollination. It’s therefore unsurprising to discover that some plants have evolved to influence these foraging habits of bees … which is where the coffee comes in.