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What is floral fidelity?

There used to be a show called Kids Say the Darnedest Things, but from our experience, kids often ask the best questions too. For example, at a recent speaking engagement, we had a Q&A session, and one of the kids asked how we ensure bees only go to the right kind of flower.

For context, World Honey Market is one of the few brands that offer an assortment of pure raw floral variety honeys. We have Florida Wildflower, Orange Blossom, Avocado, Florida Holly, and Clover. So the question is, how do we ensure that the bees only visit orange blossoms to make orange blossom honey? To explain how this works, it helps to understand floral fidelity.

Although honey bees are polylectic, which means they visit many different species of flowering plants, they also exhibit floral fidelity, also called floral consistency, which means that a bee visits only one kind of flower on any given foraging trip. If enough flowers of one type are available, a honey bee will continue to visit that same kind of flower all day long.

Floral fidelity is one of the main reasons that honey bees are such excellent pollinators of agricultural crops. When released into an orange grove, for example, the honey bees will keep working the oranges; they will pay little attention to the weeds flowering at the side of the field or growing between the rows.

Most native bees—while superb pollinators in their own right—will forage on anything they come across, whether it be the orange blossoms, dandelions, or thistles. However, native bees tend to visit more flowers per minute than honey bees, which partially makes up for being pollen packrats.

These two different foraging patterns go hand-in-hand with different flight ranges. Honey bees can fly for extremely long distances—a trait that allows them to keep searching for that same flower type and, consequently, allows them to pollinate huge tracts of monocropping farmland. Native bees fly only very short distances, so they are compelled to forage on anything they find within their range. (You can think of honey bees as obsessive/compulsive and native bees as pragmatic.)

From the beekeeper's perspective, floral fidelity allows for the production of varietal kinds of honey. If the honey bees were foraging randomly, it would be much more difficult to harvest a recognizable varietal.

The downside to floral fidelity to the honey bees is this: if the crop they are working on has low-quality pollen, most of the pollen coming into the hive during the flowering period of that crop will have the same low quality. Or if the crop has been treated with a systemic pesticide that resides in pollen, the honey bees will get an extra high dose of the pesticide.

This flight radius makes certifying honey as organic such a conundrum in the United States. While we can be reasonably confident that 99% of the bees are working a specific crop on approved land, it is impossible to guarantee that a few rogue bees didn't visit a neighbor's garden or land on a few attractive wildflowers sprouted up in the farmer's backyard.

Native bees who mix up their pollen sources as they forage have a better chance of bringing home a "balanced diet" that may not be so heavily loaded with pesticides.

Floral fidelity helps us create our signature, pure raw honey.

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