Even pollination, one of bees' best-known behaviors, can be much more complicated than it seems.
The basic process is similar for all types of bees: Females carry pollen grains, the sex cells of plants, on their bodies from flower to flower as they collect pollen and nectar to feed themselves and their developing grubs. When pollen rubs off onto a flower's stigma, the result is pollination.
My favorite area of bee research examines a method called buzz pollination. Bees use it on about 10 percent of the world's 350,000 kinds of flowering plants that have special anthers — structures that produce pollen.
For example, a tomato blossom's five anthers are pinched together, like the closed fingers of one hand. Pollen is released through one or two small pores at the end of each anther.
When a female bumblebee lands on a tomato flower, she bites one anther at the middle and contracts her flight muscles from 100 to 400 times per second. These powerful vibrations eject pollen from the anther pores in the form of a cloud that strikes the bee. It all happens in just a few tenths of a second.
The bee hangs by one leg and scrapes the pollen into "baskets" —– structures on her hind legs. Then she repeats the buzzing on the remaining anthers before moving to different flowers.
Bees also use buzz pollination on the flowers of blueberries, cranberries, eggplant and kiwi fruits. My colleagues and I are conducting experiments to determine the biomechanics of how bee vibrations eject pollen from anthers.