A Plant's Lifeline: Only One Bee Species Can Sip The Nectar Of The Death Camas

May 24, 2019

Andrena Astragali visits its host pllant, the toxic death camas
Credit James Cane

Utah scientists recently discovered a bee species that only collects food from death camas, a toxic flowering plant. This is the only known species that can collect pollen or nectar from death camas, which means it is the only known pollinator for this unique species.

“The name of the bee is Andrena astragali. It turns out this bee goes to no other flowering plant than death camas for all of its pollen and nectar needs, throughout its range," said Dr. James Cane, a researcher at the USDA Agricultural Resource Service in Logan.

Cane recently discovered a unique relationship between a Utah bee species and the toxic plant.

“All other bees that go to death camas, as much as we know, including honey bees, it’s toxic,” he said.

The relationship between this bee and plant is an example of evolutionary specialization, which is very rare in the case of toxic plants.

“This will be one of the very few examples that shows that occasionally there are flowering plants that have pollen and nectar that is toxic to most bees, but for which one bee, it enforces it’s specialization,” he said.

The toxicity of death camas sometimes impacts honey producers when other food sources are scarce.

“Bee keepers have a problem on rare occasions with this plant, because it can bloom pretty well and if they have their bees out in nature in a spring in which there’s very little else in bloom, they will use death camas because they’re hungry," Cane said. "Bee keepers have reported that they’ve seen lots of dead honey bees under their hives under those circumstances.”

Dr. Cane’s research into why this relationship evolved and how it affects other bee pollinator species is ongoing.