Bloom is the stage when the closed pink flower buds open to pale, white papery blossoms. This is when the party in the orchard really gets going. You can hear the swoosh of long dresses, the honeybees’ buzz; and follow the flight of the bumblebees, recklessly circling, then landing, the honeybees alighting on flowers, drinking in sweet nectar.
Bees visit a lot of flowers to gather this ambrosia, logging between several hundred and fifteen hundred flower visits on each trip through the orchard. They suck in the sweetness with their long proboscis, then store these sugars in their nectar stomach. Upon returning to the hive with a full belly, another bee will withdraw the nectar, process it, and transfer it into individual cells.
When the bees gather nectar from inside the apple blossoms, they brush across the pollen sitting on small pillows supported by stamens. The pollen grains attach to Velcro-like hairs on the bees’ bodies. When the bee visits another tree, the pollen from one tree is brushed from the bee onto the sticky female stigmas in the center of the blossom of another tree. The pollen grains travel down tubes to reach the ovary. There, sperm in the pollen grain meets the ovules in the ovary. These fertilized ovules become seeds, and the apple grows to protect the growing pips. We find this flesh delicious!
Honeybees need pollen and water, as well as nectar. The bees will divide up these responsibilities for the hive – some gathering pollen, their main source of protein; while others gather nectar for the sugars, and still others water. Some bees including honeybees have ‘pollen baskets’ on their hind legs formed by woven hairs. The bees also have hairs on the inside of their legs that they use like combs to gather the pollen sticking all over their bodies and push it into the basket, mixing in a little sticky nectar, so the pollen packs tightly. You can see the bees sporting bright yellow Turkish pants if you wander through the orchard when they are flying.
This year I am worried about pollination. I can’t remember a bigger bloom in the orchard — or this much spring rain! The bees don’t fly until the temperature reaches fifty-five degrees. In the last week, we’ve only had about five hours of honeybee pollinating temperatures without rain. Fortunately, the native pollinators, like the bumble bees, will fly in cooler temperatures. Only about five percent of apple blossoms need to be pollinated for a good harvest; the tree produces that many ‘extra’ flowers. But, maybe we should not consider them ‘extra.’ These flowers feed the many pollinators. The tree practices generosity. Giving and receiving are one.
If the apples practiced self-pollination, that is one flower on a tree pollinating other flowers on the same tree, it would require less flying. Peanuts, peas, tomatoes, and sunflowers are examples of self-pollinating plants. However, many plants, like most apples, have evolved to require cross-pollination to ensure genetic diversity. In scientific terms, this type of pollination is referred to as self-incompatible, or “unable to survive without another.” These plants all need another plant or tree in their life to bear fruit.
Cross-pollination is critical to a life cycle that ensures the continuity of the species. Maybe human beings aren’t so different. We are not self-compatible either. We need to interact with people different from ourselves to learn and grow. The cross-pollination of cultures, experiences, and ideas may be the ambrosia we need for a healthy, peace-filled world.