For millions of Americans, the third Thursday in November is one of the biggest and most culturally-important feasts in the year and this month on the Bee Good Bee blog, we take a look at some of the bees which make it all possible.
North America has over 4000 species of bee, all of which are pollinators of flowering plants, including many of the flowering crops we grow for food and clothing fibres. Many of these bees are also important in the production of vegetables used in animal feeds and play a significant part in creating the celebratory Thanksgiving feast.
You may be surprised to learn that without bees turkeys would be hard pushed to exist. Turkeys in the wild are omnivores, feeding on a variety of seeds, fruits and invertebrates which exist in a natural food web reliant on bees and other insect pollinators to assist plants at the base of the food chains. Domestic Turkeys live on large farms and are fed on a ration of poultry pellets made up predominantly of Maize, Wheat and other cereals. These pellet foods also contain significant quantities of Soya and or field peas as a source of protein. These are both legumes highly reliant on Megachile and Osmia bees for pollination. In addition, free-range Turkeys will graze and forage on fields of flowering crops and among orchard fruit trees where they can peck at fallen apples. These crops are heavily reliant on Honey Bees, Andrena and Osmia bees for pollination.
Stuffing typically contains onions, herbs and spices all pollinated by Bees. In the US a small mining bee called Andrena prunorum is one of the most efficient pollinators of commercially-farmed onions. Another popular stuffing recipe is apple and walnut. Apples are pollinated by a huge variety of bees but the Osmia bees are particularly efficient pollinators of orchard fruits. Osmia lignaria is so much more efficient at pollinating apples than the honey bee that just 300 female Osmia lignaria can perform the pollination role of 90,000 honey bee foragers.
Pumpkin Pie is a thanksgiving staple. Pumpkins are a huge commercial crop in the US where they are grown for carving at Halloween as well as for eating. Pumpkins are members of the cucurbit family and are pollinated by a wide variety of bees including honey bees, bumble bees, Anthophora bees and Halictus bees. In addition to these there are Squash Bees of the Peponapis and Xenoglossa genus. These bees are squash and pumpkin specialists only collecting pollen to feed their offspring from Pumpkin and Squash plants. The name Peponapis in greek means ‘pumpkin bee.’
Thanksgiving wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without Sweet Potato. Sweet Potato pie, baked Sweet Potato and Sweet Potato mash all feature regularly in Thanksgiving menus. They are not very closely related to the potato but are in fact more closely related to Morning Glory and Bindweed. They are pollinated predominantly by Hummingbirds but also by bees. Bee species that specialise in these flowers are Cemolobus ipomoeae( the last surviving member of its genus and critically endangered) and members of the Melitoma genus.
Leafy vegetables in the cabbage family which include Collard Greens, Cauliflower, Sprouts and Broccoli feature heavily in Thanksgiving recipes and are pollinated by a variety of insects including bees, beetles, Hoverflies and lepidoptera. Though the parts of the plant we eat are not reliant on pollination, bees are required to produce seed from which the crop is grown. In the US, there are several bees which specialise in collecting Brassica pollen including species of Panurginus and Dufourea bees. In the UK Honey Bees, Bumble Bees and members of the Andrena family are all good pollinators of Brassica crops.
The Rusty Patch Bumble Bee (Bombus Afinis)
No Turkey Day dinner is complete without Cranberry Sauce. Several species of wild bee are commercially important in the production of Cranberries. This fruit requires ‘buzz pollination’ and only a select few bees are capable of achieving this. Among them The Rusty Patch Bumble Bee Bombus afinis and the solitary bee Megachile addenda and Cranberry melitta bee Melitta americana. The Cranberry Melitta feeds its offspring exclusively on Cranberry pollen and is often the most numerous wild bee on large Cranberry farms. Unlike the honey bees which are shipped in to pollinate cranberry fields, these bees are flower faithful and therefor far more efficient at pollinating the Cranberries.
So the next time you’re enjoying any of these foods, whether that’s at Thanksgiving or any other celebratory meal, make sure you raise a glass to the bees who make it all happen!