All About Buzz Pollination

What is Buzz Pollination?

Buzz pollination is a unique process that some bees use to extract pollen from certain flowers. About 6% of flowering plant species have flowers with anthers that open through tiny pores or slits. To extract pollen from these specialized flowers, some bee species like bumble bees, have evolved a vibration technique that has developed over time.

This process is known as sonication or buzz pollination because it produces a distinct buzzing sound. It involves the bumble bee vibrating its wings at a specific frequency, which causes the flower to release its pollen. Without this important method of pollination certain plants can not reproduce and produce fruit.

Some plants, like blueberries, cranberries, tomatoes, and others lack nectar and rely on pollen provisions to attract and reward pollinators to produce crops. Without this special type of pollination the plants would not be able to produce as much fruit, and the quality of the fruit would be lower. This makes buzz pollination an essential process for both the plants and the animals that rely on them.

Although honey bees also visit these plants, they need 4 times as many visits to convey an equivalent quantity of pollen. This shows that ´typical pollination´ is not as efficient for these plants, unless the fields are teeming with honey bees. Sheer numbers of honeybees may sometimes compensate for their lack of efficiency, resulting in satisfactory pollination.

What is the Process of Buzz Pollination?

The indirect flight muscles in bees create vibrations (1-3) by repeatedly changing the shape of the bee’s thorax. These vibrations reach the anther cone (4) through direct contact with the bee’s thorax, head, abdomen and, to a lesser degree, its legs. Not only the anther cone, but other parts of the flower like the petals and sepals (5) also receive these vibrations. Additionally, the vibrating bee creates sound by transferring energy to the air around it (6). Image by New Phytologist Foundation

This pollination method is essential for the reproduction of certain plant species, especially those with tubular flowers that have anthers that are not easily accessible. In these cases, the pollen is tightly packed and can only be released through vibration.

Buzz pollination is a unique method of pollination where a bumble bee vibrates its wing muscles to release pollen from the anthers of a flower. Bumble bees beat at a remarkable speed of 190 times per second – that’s more than 50 flutters in the duration of a single eye blink! According to research, bees are the only animals that use vibrations for pollen collection.

The bumble bee’s flight muscles attach to different parts of its thorax. This allows them to contract and relax these muscles in a cycle that deforms the thorax. The deformation of the thorax is at a higher frequency than during flight, which results in significant accelerations. In fact, some bumblebee species have been observed to buzz with accelerations nearly 20 times that of gravity! This incredible force is what propels the pollen out of the flower with greater efficiency compared to other bee species.

The Most Common Species of Buzz Pollinators

Euglossa – Orchid Bee

The most common species of buzz pollinators include:

How Duration and Frequency Influence Buzz Pollination

Buzzing sounds from bees can last from a fraction of a second to several seconds. This duration varies not only across different species but also within the same species. In a single buzzing sequence some bombus species can emit anywhere from 1 to 17 pulses.

When a bee emits multiple pulses, the first two usually shake off most of the pollen, up to 60%. Each following pulse removes less than 10%. This suggests that bees change their behavior to collect as much pollen as possible from each flower while using less energy.

For instance, a bee tends to buzz more and stay longer on a fresh flower than on a flower that’s already had its pollen removed. Additionally, bees shorten the duration of each pulse with each successive visit to the same flower. This suggests that bees adjust their behavior based on how much pollen is left in the flower.

Why is Buzz Pollination Important?

Flowers that require buzz pollination are present in no less than 64 plant families consisting of 15,000–20,000 species of plants. Many of these families include plants that produce products, materials, or foods beneficial to humans. Some of the most well-known examples of plants that require this type of pollination include blueberries, tomatoes, and peppers. These plants have flowers with anthers that are tightly packed and cannot be accessed by traditional means. Instead, bees and other insects use their muscles to vibrate the flower, causing the pollen to be released.

Other plants that require buzz pollination include cranberries, eggplants, and kiwis. Without this type of pollination, these plants would not be able to reproduce and would eventually die out.

Overall, buzz pollination is an important process in the reproduction of certain plant species. Without the help of bees and other insects, many plants would not be able to reproduce, leading to a decline in biodiversity and potential issues with food supply.

Benefits to Plants

Sonication is a crucial process for many plant species because it ensures successful reproduction. Without this pollination method some plants, like blueberries and cranberries, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, pumpkins, and zucchinis, are unable to reproduce. This means we would no longer be able to enjoy them!

Role in Agriculture and Ecosystems

Buzz pollination has important implications for agriculture and ecosystems. Many crops rely on buzz pollination for successful fruit production. In fact, studies have shown that buzz-pollinated crops can have higher yields and better quality fruit than those pollinated by other means. Additionally, buzz pollinators play a crucial role in maintaining biodiversity in ecosystems, as they help to ensure the reproduction of a wide variety of plant species.

Conservation Implications

The importance of buzz pollination for plant reproduction and crop production highlights the need for conservation efforts to protect pollinator populations. Unfortunately, many pollinator species are in decline due to factors such as habitat loss, pesticide use, and climate change. By promoting pollinator-friendly practices, such as planting native flowers and reducing pesticide use, we can help to protect these important species and ensure the continued success of this pollination method.

Interesting Facts about Buzz Pollination

While over half of all bee species have the ability to buzz pollinate, honey bees (Apis mellifera L., Hymenoptera: Apidae) which are often used as a supplemental pollinator, lack the capacity to generate vibrations for pollen removal.

Interestingly, different bee species create unique vibrations, even when visiting the same type of flower. These vibrations vary in properties such as frequency and duration. For instance, a bee will produce different vibrations when visiting different types of plants.

Yet, it’s still uncertain what specific bee characteristics influence these vibrations. Some studies suggest that larger bees might generate stronger vibrations, but this doesn’t affect the frequency.

Interestingly, bees seem to adjust their vibrations based on experience. As they visit the same type of flower repeatedly, the frequency, strength, and duration of their vibrations can change. However, it’s unknown if this is due to the bee learning from experience.


Do Honey Bees use this type of pollination?

Honey bees are unable to buzz pollinate. This method of pollination has evolved over time and honey bees have not developed the ability to sonicate.

What is the frequency of buzz pollination?
Frequency of Sonication, Image by New Phytologist Foundation
The frequency varies, with the most dominant frequency being c. 370 Hz vibrations across a range of frequencies (0–2.5 kHz

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