By Lisa Mason, CSU Extension Horticulture Specialist
Sweet as Honey: How Pollinators Spice Up Our Food
We have so much to be thankful for this holiday season including the meals we eat. Have you ever wondered how much of the food on our tables for which we can thank pollinators? Approximately 1/3 of our diet is dependent on pollinators, including some of our most nutritious fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Even our meat and dairy industries depend on pollinators because bees pollinate alfalfa and clover, which are food sources for cattle. Food staples like corn, rice, soybeans, and wheat are either wind-pollinated or self-pollinated.
As we plan our holiday meals with family and friends, we can think about all the delicious foods we have because of pollinators.
This time of year, I love to sip on a warm mug of pumpkin chai. Ingredients include black tea, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and pumpkin. I prefer my tea with a spoonful of honey and cream. Each ingredient exists partially or fully because of pollinating insects!
- Tea plants – Flies, bees, and other insects
- Pumpkin – Squash bees
- Cardamom – Honey bees, solitary bees
- Cinnamon – Bees and flies
- Cloves – Flies, bees, butterflies
- Ginger – Produced via rhizomes, pollinators are largely unknown—some species have sweat bee visitors; research in progress
- Nutmeg – Thrips and a variety of insects
- Cream – Depends on the creamer
- Half and Half, a dairy product produced by dairy cows that feed on alfalfa and clover that are pollinated by bees specifically solitary, cavity-nesting bees like the Alfalfa leafcutter bee.
- Almond milk, produced from almond plants are pollinated by honey bees.
- Oat milk, from oats are wind-pollinated.
- Soy milk, from soybean plants are typically self-pollinated but pollinating insects can increase the yield of soybeans
- Honey – A direct product made by honey bees
Fun fact: Did you know that it takes approximately 12 honey bees their entire lives to make one teaspoon of honey? Honey bees are hard-working ladies!
Did you also know that the nutmeg tree has a strategy to “trick” insects into bringing pollen from male trees to the female flowers? To learn more about how nutmeg and other spices are pollinated, check out this post written on the Maryland Grows Blog by Anahí Espíndola, University of Maryland.
Some bees are generalists or polylectic, meaning they collect pollen and nectar from a variety of flower species. These bees are opportunistic but still may prefer certain flowers. A specialist or monolectic bee only feeds on a specific plant species. Monolectic bees have generally coevolved with a specific plant species meaning the plant and bee depend on each other for survival. Other bees may specialize in pollinating a specific plant family or genus. Do you enjoy pumpkins and squash? If so, thank a squash bee! They are a great example of a specialist bee. In Colorado, Peponapis pruinosa and Xenglossa species. Squash and pumpkin plants need these bees to pollinate the flowers so they can reproduce. They have special pollen collecting hairs on their hind legs that helps to transport the pollen. One research study showed that not only were squash bees more efficient at pollinating squash plants, but they pollinate earlier in the morning when pollen and nectar is readily available. By the time honey bees start foraging, the squash bees have already pollinated the flowers. If you look in the early mornings at the big yellow flowers on your squash or pumpkin plants, you are likely to see squash bees in the flowers.
Bumble bees have a specialized method of pollinating flower called “buzz pollination.” When they land on a plant, they have specific vibration that releases pollen from the plant. Tomatoes, peppers, and other plants in the Solanaceae family (the nightshade family) require buzz pollination.
Many of our meals and recipes already contain ingredients where the flowers were pollinated by insects. If you are looking to try a new recipe, I highly recommend checking out the free Pollinator Friendly Cooking guide provided by The Pollinator Partnership.
Have a safe, healthy and happy holiday season!
- The Pollinator Partnership
- The Bees of Colorado
- Native Bee Watch Citizen Science Field Guide
- The Forgotten Pollinators
- The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
- The Pollination Efficiency of the Squash Bee (Peponapis pruinosa) and the Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) on Summer Squash (Cucurbita pepo)
- Buzz Pollination: Studying Bee Vibrations on Flowers
- Maryland Grows Blog
Here is a list of common food items and who pollinates them provided by The Pollinator Partnership:
Almonds – Honey bees
Anise – Honey bees
Apples – Honey bees, blue mason orchard bees
Apricot – Bees
Avocado – Bees, flies, bats
Blueberry – Over 115 kinds of bees, including bumblebees, mason bees, mining bees and leafcutter bees
Cardamom – Honey bees, solitary bees
Cashew: Bees, moths, fruit bats
Cherry: Honey bees, Bumblebees, Solitary bees, flies
Chocolate – Bees, flies
Coconut – Insects, fruit bats
Coffee – Stingless bees, other bees, flies
Coriander – Honey bees, solitary bees
Cranberries – Over 40 bee species
Dairy – Dairy cows eat alfalfa pollinated by leaf cutter and honey bees
Fig – Over 800 species of fig wasps
Grape – Bees
Grapefruit – Bees
Kiwi fruit: Honey bees, bumblebees, solitary bees
Macadamia nuts – Bees, beetles, wasps
Mango – Bees, flies, wasps
Melon – Bees
Nutmeg – Honey bees, birds
Peach – Bees
Pear – Honey bees, flies, mason bees
Peppers – Bumble bees
Peppermint – Bees, flies
Pumpkin – Squash and gourd bees, bumble bees
Raspberry and Blackberry – Bees, flies
Strawberry – Bees
Sugar cane – Bees, thrips
Tea plants – Flies, bees, and other insects
Tequila – Bats
Tomato – Bumble bees
Vanilla – Bees
Note: This list is not comprehensive. Many other crops also require pollination by insects and animals.
Now you can quiz your friends and family over the holidays about what foods are dependent on pollinators.