Plant sexual material, that is of course. Sorry to disappoint any of my readers hoping to hear about the sexual parts of bees or indeed any other species.
Last Thursday I was busy on the first evening session of a London Beekeepers Association three evening microscopy course. I can reveal that the first challenge of going on a microscopy course is learning how to say the damn word. Cue me lisping ‘Mi-cross-cospy’ again and again.
We began by looking at some slides of brassica and dandelion pollens, as well as a varroa mite, under compound microscopes. The microscopes are an expensive piece of kit that need to be treated carefully; the ones we were using cost between £180-350. We also prepared some of our own pollen slides from fresh flowers and did some Melissopalynology by testing the pollen in our own honeys.
Pollens of course are the plant’s way of making love – they contain male genetic material. Bees and other pollinators – beetles, bats, midges, moths, butterflies, to name a few – help some plants spread their pollen to reach the female parts of other flowers of their species. Other plants, such as grasses and some trees, rely on wind pollination, while aquatic plants use water pollination.
“For to the bee a flower is the fountain of life. And to the flower a bee is a messenger of love.” (Kahil Gibran, The Prophet, 1923)
Under the microscope, pollens reveal themselves to have a multitude of complex and wonderful shapes that often remind me of primitive sea creatures. The trained eyes of someone who has studied Forensic Palynology can identify pollens on a murder victim or suspect and link them to a particular location.
Another use for pollen identification is to check the geographical origins of a honey. All honey should have at least a few grains of pollen – a complete lack of pollen indicates that either 1) the substance tested is not honey or 2) it has been micro-filtered to remove all pollen and conceal its origins. A 2011 survey by Food Safety News famously found that more than three-fourths of the honey they tested from U.S. grocery stores had been ultra-filtered and technically wasn’t honey. If you are a Chinese producer, concealing the origins of your honey can be a way to sneak it into the U.S. and avoid paying the correct import tariffs. Another reason to buy from local beekeepers who you trust!
Back at home I have been practising my pollen drawing, to give you an idea of the fantastic microscopic shapes lodged in the pollen baskets of bees.
Some pollen resources:
- The pollen grain drawings of Dorothy Hodges (IBRA, 2009) – reproduced from the iconic and difficult to get hold of 1952 original by Dorothy Hodges, The pollen loads of the honey bee. Black and white drawings of the pollen grains.
- A colour guide to pollen loads of the honey bee by William Kirk (IBRA, 2006) – colour charts of common pollens.
- Pollen chart – interactive with toggles for different seasons, from Sheffield beekeepers
- Pollen guide – Bristol Beekeeping Association have produced an interactive pollen guide, access by clicking on ‘Pollen guide’ along their top navigation menu