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Bees and Flowers: Getting Harder to Match Up

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Nothing looks lovelier or smells sweeter than a garden in bloom. Flowers perfume the air and intoxicate us with their scent. But because of air pollution, flowers are starting to lose their sweet smell. And because of that, bees may be having a tougher time pollinating them. (Pollination is the way that flowers are fertilized.) And it's not just beauty that flowers provide. Without flowers, the very existence of humans would be threatened!

Flowers are a lot like people. Flowers have female parts, called pistils, and male parts, called stamens. Stamens produce pollen, while pistils produce seeds. Flowers have DNA from their parents, like you, but unlike you, flowers have both mama and papa parts; the "seed parent" is the mama, while the "pollen parent" is the papa. The DNA is divided between the two "parents." These two halves of the flower's DNA must meet up in order for a seed to develop and a new flower to be "born."

For new flowers to grow, pollen must get from the stamen to the very top of the pistil, a sticky place called the stigma, where ovules, which are seeds waiting to happen, or "half-seeds" that are waiting to merge with male DNA so they can become whole, are produced. The pollen is contained in sacs that open when they are ripe. Hungry bees travel from flower to flower to get at the delicious nectar at the base of the petals, and in doing this they rub against the pollen on the stamen. The bees then accidentally transfer the pollen—the male DNA—to another flower's stigma. The complete set of DNA has the chromosomes that will make the new flower resemble its mom and dad, and not something else. In other words, a lily cannot give birth to a rose any more than your parents could produce an elephant.

Horticulture is the science of creating, producing, and reproducing plants. Floriculture is the aspect of this that involves working with flowers and has given us many varieties of flowers that would not have existed in nature. And just as human activity has given us many types of flowers, other kinds of human activity have threatened what we have.

Just one hundred years ago, the sweet smell of flowers, which is a kind of signpost for bees, could be detected by bees from several thousand feet away. Today the scent of a flower travels only several hundred feet before being destroyed by environmental and airborne pollutants. No more long-distance sweet smell could mean no more pollination. And sadly, that could mean no flowers growing wild in their native environment, but only flowers that are produced and grown in greenhouses. So what?! I live in the city and buy my flowers from a florist anyway! But did you know that flowers' beauty and fragrance are nature's model for environmentally aided procreation? That's right. The way that other species, such as bees and animals, intermingle in the pollination process is nature's way of creating variety.

Genetic variety is essential to life on Earth, as it protects against disease and the unpredicable dynamics of the natural environment. In his book "Flowers: And How They Changed the World," horticulturist William C. Burger shows the central role of flowers in the design of evolution. He also explains how flowers are the fundamental energy resource for most of the environment: Since they are able to self-energize--that is, to energize themselves by capturing energy from the sun--they form the vital first link in the life-chain on which all animals depend.

Flowers have enabled humans to thrive; it's now our turn to protect flowers from the world they have helped us to make.

For more information on bees and flowers go to:

National Geographic,
"The Big Bloom: How Flowering Plants Changed the World":

The Open Door Web Site, 
"The Structure of Insect-Pollinated Flowers":

University of Virginia, 
"Flowers' Fragrance Diminished by Air Pollution":

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