Now There’s Proof: Bees Make Bigger Plants

Bumblebee pollinating mustard plant/ Photo: University of Zurich (UZH)

There’s been a lot of buzz in recent years about pollinators, especially of the fuzzy yellow and black kind. Now comes news that bumblebees not only help plants propagate, but they also have a positive effect on their size, fragrance and color. It’s all part of a new experiment by researchers at the University of Zurich that proves bees do it bigger and better.

Of course we all know by now that pollinators are essential to the propagation of plant species.

Bee covered in pollen

But the recent study undertaken by evolutionary biologists from the University of Zurich (UZH) found that plants change in significant ways depending on the pollinator. Specifically, those plants pollinated by bumblebees are larger in size, more fragrant and have brighter color (as evidenced by a greater UV color component.) This has big implications for the plant world.



For their experiment, UZH professor Florian Schiestl and doctoral student Daniel Gervasi used field mustard (Brassica rapa). A common field weed, field mustard is the origin of many cultivars including canola, turnip and bok choy.

Field mustard

The researchers divided the plants into three groups, allowing the first group of plants to be pollinated by bumblebees, the second by hover flies and the third by hand. They then followed the field mustard for nine generations. Afterwards, they analyzed the pollinators’ effects on the plants.

(A word on hover flies. Hover flies may look like bees or wasps, but they are actually flies with black and orange markings. They’re important pollinators whose larvae love to feed on aphids.)

A hover fly


Not to disparage the hover flies, but after just nine generations, they simply couldn’t keep up with the bees when it came to affecting the evolutionary success of the plants. In contrast to the plants pollinated by the bees, those pollinated by the hover flies were smaller and their flowers were less fragrant. The flowers were also forced to self-pollinate more to make up for the flies’ lower efficiency.

Plants pollinated by bumblebees (left) and hover flies (right) Photo: UZH



It’s a known fact that different pollinators have preferences for different plants, but the dramatic changes in the test plants after just nine generations came as a surprise to the researchers. Most evolutionary changes occur over a much longer period of time.

UZH professor Schiestl drew the following conclusion:

A change in the composition of pollinator insects in natural habitats can trigger a rapid evolutionary transformation in plants.

Before we jump all over the hover fly, let’s remember that all pollinators are good. What this study shows us, however, is that some are better than others (namely, bees). The fact that their species is threatened could have a direct impact on our agriculture, not to mention our garden plants as they make the necessary adaptations.

This is of particular concern given the recent decline in bumblebee populations due to pesticides and other environmental factors. With less bees available, plants such as field mustard might be forced to rely more and more on other, less effective pollinators like hover flies, with the results being weaker flower fragrances and increased self-pollination.

Yet one more reason to get busy saving the bees.


Seasonal Eating: The Best ‘Warming’ Foods to Try This Winter

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The downside of winter is that it can be a tough time to find fresh produce. But, if you look beyond the imported berries and other out-of-season foods in the grocery, you can still find many great options available. Eating foods that are in season is not only good for the body; it puts a person in sync with his environment. Small wonder that nature has already prepared for cold weather by producing some of the best ‘warming’ foods around. Continue reading

Nature’s Flu Remedy: Antiviral, Anti-inflammatory Lemon

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With the flu season approaching, most of us are looking for ways to boost immunity and increase our chances of staying well. For some, this means getting the flu shot, for others it means restocking their arsenal of home remedies, for many it means a combination of both. Among the natural remedies, there seem to be no end to what’s available. But, sometimes it doesn’t take more than opening your refrigerator door to uncover one of the best flu fighters of all: the humble lemon. Continue reading

The Fringe Benefits of Wearing the Same Outfit Every Day

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Donna Karan:

Many years ago when I was working in Paris, the head of the firm’s accounting team came to the office each Monday dressed to kill. I can still remember a couple of her trademark outfits: skinny black leather pants with a stretch lace top and a bodycon pencil skirt with a billowy silk blouse (black bra underneath.) A pair of sky-high black heels accompanied each look. It was an exciting show, yes. But what really got my attention was that once she (let’s call her Claude) chose her outfit, she purposely wore it every day, all week long. Continue reading

Boost Your Recall with A Trip through the Memory Palace


There’s a great book by John Crowley called “Little Big” that unfolds in multiple dimensions, leading the reader on an ever expanding journey of the mind. Much of the journey is made possible by an ancient memorization technique called the memory palace. The idea of a palace that lived in the mind so intrigued me that I began experimenting with creating one of my own. Now, when I need to remember things, I just stroll through my memory palace and recover what I’m trying to recall. Continue reading

Digital Flashcards Can Make You Smarter About Almost Anything

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For many of us, the thought of flashcards brings back memories of rigid, 3 x 5 paper cards, imprinted with such fascinating materials as plus and minus tables or individual foreign words. Jump forward decades to today and flashcards have become as tech savvy as we are. Now, in a complete role reversal, it is we who determine what information goes on the cards and how and when we want to use them.

New online digital programs for flashcards are making all of this possible, and they’re designed to make students and self-motivated learners smarter about almost any subject they care to explore. Continue reading

The Happy Sunny Allure of Lilly Pulitzer Clothing

I grew up in the land of pink and green preppies in northern Delaware, home to Lilly Pulitzer fans by the thousands. Who didn’t covet the bold and bright colored print dresses for the annual spring break vacation? There seemed to be nothing cooler than Lilly Pulitzer style. The only problem was, my mother wasn’t on board with the look. Continue reading