The Honey House
Plants make all forms of higher life possible.
The first algae scum probably formed on land 1200 million years ago and it took another 800 million years for the first land plants to appear. 800 million years
... that’s beyond my capacity to imagine. 30 million years later these primitive land plants began to diversify and their petrified remains are found today in volcanic springs with their cellular detail clearly preserved.
The establishment of a land-based flora caused oxygen, which was a waste product for plants, to accumulate in the atmosphere. When this concentration rose above 13% wildfires became possible. This is first recorded in the fossil record some
440 million years ago by charcoalified plant fossils.
400 million years ago most of the features recognizable in plants today were present, including roots, leaves and secondary wood, and 50 million years later seeds
had evolved enabling plants to reached a degree of sophistication that allowed them to form forests.
It was early in this period that the oldest definitive insect fossil is found, estimated to be 396-407 million years old, and 50
million years later amphibians, from which mammals would evolve, were common.
A report in the current issue of Science describes an international effort to map out the thousands of physical traits and genetic clues that trace the
lineage ofall the placental mammals - a huge group of 5000 species. The results indicate that we, together with whales, elephants, dogs and bats, arose from a small, furry, insect-eating animal that lived after
the demise of dinosaurs.
Flowering plants probably first appeared 200 million years ago, proliferating 100 million years later in what is known as the ‘angiosperm revolution,’ the reasons for which are still unclear.
It is hypothesized that it was during this snowballing of plant and flower types that a species of hunting wasp developed a taste for nectar, became a vegetarian and gave rise to the modern honey bee.
The latest major group of plants
to evolve were the grasses, of which there are some 10 000 species. They first appear in the fossil record about 80 millions ybp and became prolific around 40 million years ago. Over the last 10 million years the grasses, as well as many other groups, have
evolved new mechanisms of metabolism to survive the low carbon dioxide and warm, dry conditions of the tropics.
Pollen possesses two characteristics that make it particularly useful for studying plant evolution: it is very resistant
to decomposition and so can found in ancient soils, and under the microscope it is very distinctive between plant families and species. An examination of the contents of fossilised dung of plant-eating dinosaurs, for example, has revealed types of cells that
are only found in the epidermis of grass leaves; thus presumably the last of the dinosaurs dined on grass.
10 000 years ago human intervention played an important role in plant evolution in the form of the neolithic
shift from an economy based on hunting and gathering to a system based on the domestication of plants and animals. Early farmers, for example, selected forms of wheats that could be easily husked, making the flour making process more manageable, and in so
doing inadvertently hybridized different strains.
So yes, plants are important. First of course they take in carbon dioxide and emit oxygen, vital to the survival of most living species. Secondly they are crucial to both water
and soil quality - think of the desertification of the soil and the fetid, rancid water that occurs when plants are absent. Ken Burns’ most recent documentary, The Dust Bowl, illustrates this dramatically.
Plants are the major food source for most insects, reptiles, birds and mammals, which in turn provide a food source for those higher up the chain, mankind included. And diversification is important. We know, for example, that whereas honey
bees can survive on one pollen source, to be healthy they need a variety of sources, often stated as not less than twelve.
And when plants die they decompose back into the soil, providing a source of nutrients to sustain further
“Our mistake,” according to Wendell Berry talking on the Diane Rehm show, “is that we think we can save the people by abusing the land.” Not only does population growth place more
demands on decreasing areas of farmland but the urban revolution of the last one hundred years has removed most of us from an intimate awareness of the health and well being of that land. Beekeeping is a profound and frequent reminder of the vital connection
between one species of insect and the land. It might even be an ominous connection because as Wendell Berry added, “We all share the same fate.”