Scientists discover bees of the sea

For the first time, researchers have found evidence that underwater ecosystems have pollinators that perform the same task as bees on land.

Just like their terrestrial cousins, grasses under the sea shed pollen to sexually reproduce. Until now, biologists assumed the marine plants relied on water alone to spread their genes far and wide. But the discovery of pollen-carrying ‘bees of the sea’ has changed all of that.

Over several years from 2009 to 2012, researchers from the National Autonomous University of Mexico filmed the spring nocturnal wanderings of crustaceans among beds of turtle seagrass, Thalassia testudinum.

Looking through the videos, they spotted more invertebrates visiting male pollen-bearing flowers than those that lacked pollen – just like bees hovering around pollen-producing plants on land.

“We saw all of these animals coming in, and then we saw some of them carrying pollen,” lead researcher Brigitta van Tussenbroek told New Scientist.

The concept was so new, they invented a new term to describe it: zoobenthophilous pollination. Before that, researchers had never predicted that animals were involved in pollinating marine plants.

Wondering if the invertebrates were actually pollinating the seagrasses, or just feeding on it, van Tussenbroek and her team added an assortment of tiny crustaceans to an aquarium of turtle-grass.

In minutes, pollen had appeared on the female flowers, compared with no transfer in the control tank that didn’t have crustaceans in it. … Gorging on their meal, pollen clings to the crustaceans’ bodies, where it is transferred to other flowers as they continue to feed, just like bees.

So far, the researchers have only shown this relationship with turtle-grass, which have large flowers. It’s yet to be seen if the other 60-odd species of seagrass also rely on ‘sea bees’ to carry their pollen.

… Given it takes two hectares of tropical forest to match the carbon contained within a single hectare of seagrass, ecologists are now recognising the significance of their ‘blue carbon’ reserves.

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How big an area is a hectare? One hectare contains about 2.47 acres and one acre is 43,560 square feet. An acre is a square, 208.71 ft by 208.71 ft. One hectare is 107,639 square feet, or a square 328.08 ft by 328.08 ft.

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