Honey Bees: Heroes of Our Planet

Have you ever had the opportunity to observe the busy work of a tiny honey bee as it meanders from flower to flower on a clear, sunny day? There’s something truly captivating about honey bees that draws us deeper into their world. We see honey bees frequently in books, movies, and television, where they are often associated with making hives filled with delicious, golden honey. You might recall reading about a hungry bear character in search of the honey bee’s golden treasures in various children’s stories. Honey bees are known for their production of honey and beeswax, as well as the large role they play in the pollination of plants and flowers. Honey bees can also be considered super-organisms due to their complex social systems and dynamic, tight-knit interactions with one another and their environments.
 

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History of Beekeeping

Since early recorded history, humans have been drawn to honey bees and their ability to produce tasty and valuable substances. Indigenous people have been historically culturing or exploiting bees all around the world, eventually leading to the domestication of a select few honey bee species over time. Roffet-Salque et al. (2015) examined the importance of the honey bee in agricultural societies throughout history. They found that people were harvesting bees for their honey and beeswax as far back as the time of Neolithic communities during the very beginnings of farming and agriculture (Roffet-Salque et al. 2015). You can probably imagine the attraction to honey back then when there were hardly any options for food flavoring and sugary treats. Furthermore, beeswax would have been extremely useful as an early form of glue, medicine, and so on. Today, beekeepers raise domesticated honey bee colonies for a variety of reasons, including the extraction of their raw honey, the benefits of their presence for pollinating crops, and as a healthy, environmentally friendly recreational activity.

Bee Species

There are actually seven recognized species of honey bee within the genus Apis, with the most popular and well-known being the Western honey bee (Apis mellifera). Out of the 20,000 different kinds of bees, we often recognize honey bees as the most charismatic representative of the species. However, there are a few other close relatives of the honey bee deserving of our interest and respect. Mason bees (Osmia spp.), the gentle cousins of the honey bee, are also fantastically efficient pollinators native to North America.

Leafcutter bees (Megachilidae spp.) are hard-working, more solitary pollinators with a specialization in carrying pollen for alfalfa, an important crop for livestock. The bumblebee (Bombus spp.), a hairier and more robust cousin of honey bees, are another popular species often associated with spring flowers and lazy, sunny days. All of these species of bees are unique but share one thing in common – they provide incredibly significant ecosystem services with far-reaching effects on their respective habitats and environments.

 

What is Pollination?

Honey bees are super pollinators, meaning that they are very good at helping flowers and plants reproduce. When a honey bee lands on the flower of a plant, pollen from the flower’s male reproductive organ (the stamen) will stick to the hairs on the bee’s body. The honey bee will then carry that pollen to another flower where it comes in contact with the flower’s female reproductive organ (the pistil), thus creating the opportunity for fertilization. It’s a win-win relationship; the bee gets important nutrients from the flower’s nectar and pollen, while the flower gets a chance at reproduction. (Other bees use a pollen basket.) Honey bees are generalists, meaning that they aren’t too picky about which flowers they choose to visit. This is great for the bee, because they aren’t restricted by the need to find one specific type of flower. This can also be beneficial to plants because bees will likely visit a wider variety of flowers over a longer foraging period.

Do you enjoy eating fresh fruits such as strawberries, blueberries, and apples? Are healthy dietary staples such as broccoli, nuts, and asparagus part of your everyday meals? Without honey bees and other bee species, you can say goodbye to the majority of fresh, nutritious food options. In fact, if it weren’t for bees, about one third of the food that humans eat would not be available! If that’s not reason enough to capture your interest and concern for bees, consider the wide range of ecosystem services that bees provide. Do you enjoy being out in nature while breathing in the fresh air and immersing yourself in the beautiful scenery? Without the services of bees and other pollinators, our world would look very different. Pollinator-dependent plants would be unable to reproduce and spread across the landscape. Consider the importance of flowering plants and fruit trees for other insects, birds, and wildlife. Without these sources of food, herbivores and frugivores (plant and fruit-eating animals) would have a harder time finding food. This in turn would impact the rest of the food chain, including carnivores and omnivores such as wolves, bears, and humans. Due to these far-reaching, powerful connections, the honey bee is a profound contributor to ecosystems.

Why Bees Are Important

Honey bees can play an enormous role in producing the highest quality fruit and vegetables that we grow and consume. In 2000, honey bee pollination in the United States agricultural industry was estimated to have a value of $14.6 billion, which is a 36.3% increase from previous years (Morse and Calderone 2000). However, honey production is valued around $200 million, which is incredibly small in comparison. Out of the 115 leading agricultural crop plants worldwide, 75% or 87 of them depend on, or at least benefit from animal pollination (Klein et al. 2007). The remaining 28 crops rely on self-pollination or wind (Klein et al. 2007). This is a huge portion of important crops that require bees and other animal pollinators for their reproduction! Are you still wondering why honey bees are so important for growing and producing the food that you eat? Bartomeus et al. (2014) looked at how pollinators delivered benefits to different types of common crops that we consume. They found that if bees contribute in the production of fruits and vegetables, the quality improves and the yield will grow by up to 71% (Bartomeus et al. 2014). In other words, bees can help make crops not only look and taste better, but also help increase the amount that can be grown at a given time.

 

Bees and Honey

Aside from the abundance of gifts that bees offer for the production and quality of our food, keeping honey bees can also deliver us valuable and nutritional benefits from the materials and substances that they gather and produce. Do you love to use honey as a natural sweetener for your tea or cooking recipes? Honey can also be great for a sore throat or an upset stomach if you are having nausea or indigestion. Honey can be used as an exfoliator as well as an aid in curing acne. According to the U.S. Honey Board, Americans consumed 410 million pounds of honey in 2010. Of that, nearly 70% was imported. You can thank bees and the hard work of beekeepers for this wonderful golden substance!
Pollen, wax, and propolis (a resin-like material from the buds of trees usually obtained from beehives) also offer a wide variety of craft, manufacturing, and medical applications. According to WebMD, bee pollen can be consumed for a wide range of benefits, including appetite stimulation, hay fever, mouth sores, bleeding problems, and gastrointestinal issues. WebMD also discusses the historical use of propolis in the healing of wounds, tumors, canker sores, and the supplementation of other medical problems, as well as its use in cosmetics. Wax or beeswax has a wide range of uses, from oiling furniture and granite polisher to bow string lubricant and lip balm. Clearly, honey bees are more than just producers of a natural sweetener. For centuries, they have offered a myriad of medicinal benefits and practical uses that we can still enjoy to this day. Considering everything that honey bees do for us, what can we do for them?

 

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Why Are Bees Dying?

Unfortunately, bees have been dying at a terrifying rate. Koh et al. (2016) performed a large-scale analysis for the trends and status of wild bees in the United States, with a focus on correlations with impacts on pollination services. They found that, between 2008 and 2013, “bee abundance declined across 23% of US land area” (Koh et al. 2016). Furthermore, their research indicated that farmers in the US may experience increased costs and destabilization in crop production in accordance with the decline of pollinators (Koh et al. 2016). Unfortunately, domestic bees are showing declining trends as well. According to Bee Informed, 44% of beekeeper colonies were lost in the United States between 2015 and 2016. These trends, based on a survey looking at commercial as well as small-scale beekeepers, appear to be getting worse. We know that we need bees, and we know that they’re in trouble – so why are bees dying?

CCD?

The answer isn’t simple. There are a number of factors that can result in the decline of bee populations and Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. CCD occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony suddenly disappears, leaving behind the queen and essentially collapsing or breaking up the colony. This is a major concern, because while bees are declining, the demand for pollinator-dependent crops is increasing. In Marla Spivak’s TED Talk discussion “Why bees are disappearing”, she mentions that there has been a 300% increase in crop production that requires bee pollination. This list includes a large variety of fruits and vegetables that we buy every day at the grocery store, as well as crops, such as alfalfa, that feed the livestock that we also consume. She goes on to mention that having bees naturally pollinate crops results in much higher quality fruit than “unnatural” pollination, such as manually distributing pollen by hand. Despite the massive significance of goods and services that bees provide for us, we now have only half of the number of managed hives in the United States than we did in 1945. This means that the number of managed beehives has declined while crop demand has increased, creating a major imbalance for agriculture as well as ecosystems. Why?

Wild Bees

Bees are in danger of disappearing from our environment. With the expansion of human development, wild bees have been losing their natural habitats as the land transitions into industrial agriculture. Additionally, warming climate conditions have caused major shifts in plant communities, and therefore the behavior and survival of bees. Conte and Navajas (2008) studied the impacts of climate change on European honey bees and found that climate change could have a significant impact on factors related to stress and disease, and a combination of human-induced environmental changes could hinder the ability of bees to adapt to these changes. In other words, many bee populations are facing a large amount of endangerment at a greater rate than they can adjust to, despite their great adaptability. In their assessment of pollinator contributions to agricultural crops, Bartomeus et al. (2014) mentioned that the loss of wild bees can partially be mitigated by the presence of managed honey bees; however, wild populations are major contributors and landscape-scale actions should be taken to restore wild bee populations. Ultimately, both domestic and wild bees are important pollinators for industrial agriculture as well as wild ecosystems, and they need our help.

Bees & Pesticides

Pesticide use is another major factor that is putting bee populations at risk. Pesticides are meant to keep “bad” bugs, weeds, and fungi out of our crops. However, these pesticides can have unintentional negative side effects on the “good” bugs, including honey bees and other important pollinators. One type of widely used pesticide is called “neonicotinoid”, and it’s causing major issues for both commercial bred honey bees as well as wild bee populations. When a crop is treated with neonicotinoid chemicals, it becomes toxic to any insects that interacts with it, even non-target species. In an article from Mercola, Dr. Mercola discusses how neonicotinoid pesticides are used on many garden-store plants, even ones that are considered to be “bee-friendly”. He goes on to say that negative effects on bees can be mitigated by encouraging manufacturers to stop producing toxic neonictinoids and instead focus on using alternative organic weed and pest control options.

Varroa Mite

Yet another major factor threatening honey bees is the varroa mite (Varroa destructor). This very small, round mite is a terror for honey bees and it can destroy entire colonies if left untreated. A verroa mite outbreak can mean devastating economic impacts for beekeepers, and it is considered to be one of the primary factors involved in CCD. In a recent press release from University of Maryland, honey bee researchers found that varroa mite infestations are more of a serious problem than previously thought, and infestations appear to be worse in stationary hives. What’s worse is that varroa mites can act as a vector for severe viruses and they can spread diseases between hives. Only appropriate and consistent treatment and care provided by beekeepers can keep colonies alive, so it’s vitally important that beekeepers persistently maintain their bees and stay up-to-date on the latest treatment efforts. Unfortunately, there are many cases where CCD still occurs, despite the beekeeper’s best actions for care and treatment.

Helping the Honey Bee

There is hope! If we dedicate more time and resources to studying bees, spreading awareness, and working toward positive coexistence with bees, we can help both wild and domesticated populations. Brown and Paxton (2009) assessed the major threats to bee diversity and presented a list of strategies for actions we can take to help bees. Some examples of these strategies include the minimization of habitat loss and degradation, adding bee-friendly features to agricultural areas, increasing studies on bees to answer more questions about their decline, and promoting public education (Brown and Paxton 2009). Saving honey bees and other bee species starts with collaborating wild bee habitat restoration efforts, improving methods for keeping domesticated honey bees, reducing the use of harmful pesticides, and spreading knowledge about the importance of bees to ecosystems and our daily lives. Whether you practice beekeeping, enjoy eating food from pollinator-dependent sources, or simply love honey bees – there’s always a reason to help bees!

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