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From the Hort Desk

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!

A honey bee, Apis mellifera. Photo: Lisa Mason

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.

A squash bee, Peponapis pruinosa in a squash flower. Photo: Susan Ellis,

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!


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.  

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