Bees have been around for over 80 million years, buzzing between flowers and plants to collect pollen and nectar.
They are certainly a well-loved insect. A common sight across the world, and integral to human existence as they pollinate plants and crops and produce honey – the only food created by insects that humans eat.
Bee populations are declining globally, which could have drastic effects on the current balance of the natural world. It is vital that we protect bees to look after the environment, and the best way to start this journey is to look at why bees are important.
Why are Bees so Important?
1. Bees Pollinate Our Crops
Bees are pollinators, which means alongside other animals like butterflies, birds, and bats, they help plants reproduce by passing genetic material between flowers.
This is vital not only for many natural plants and flowers but also for crops that produce the food we eat. Humans rely on bees to pollinate our food crops and around 70 of the top 100 food crops are pollinated by bees, which contribute to around 90% of the world’s nutrition.
Many crops are pollinated by the wind, like grains, but a vast variety of crops such as cotton, fruit trees, nuts, coffee, berries, and vegetables rely on bees for pollination.
Without bees, the amount of food produced would decrease as crops would not be able to reproduce.
Farmers would be forced to manually pollinate which is less efficient, time-consuming, and leads to an increase in costs. It is estimated that bee pollination is worth over 14 billion dollars in the US alone, highlighting how important bees are to human existence.
2. Bees Support Biodiversity
Bees pollinate wild plants, trees, and crops. In fact, it is estimated that 80% of wildflowers in Europe depend on insect pollination to reproduce. This makes bees an integral part of ecosystems, creating food and shelter for other animals, and playing an important part in the growth and survival of these environments.
It is evident that bees have an important role in supporting biodiversity as when bee populations decline, like that of the bumblebee in Europe, so do the plants depend on them, with 76% of species dropping in numbers.
3. Bees Produce Honey
Honey serves as a winter food source for bees, which they create in the summer months when nectar is abundant. For thousands of years, humans have utilized the high calorie, sweetness of honey for its medicinal, anti-bacterial, and anti-inflammatory benefits.
Honey is used by humans as a food source to treat injuries and prevent infections, as well as by other animals.
Recently, there has been research into how consuming honey from local hives can help those with seasonal allergies by reducing the severity of hay fever symptoms.
The idea is that bees collect nectar from local plants and trees to create honey, which when consumed by people can reduce the inflammatory effects of tree and plant pollen in the summer months.
There are many other substances produced by bees that humans utilize, including beeswax, which has been used by humans for over 9,000 years for its waterproofing properties in pots.
In the modern-day, beeswax is used in eco-friendly products like natural food wraps, which are an alternative to plastic wrap.
4. Bees Provide an Indicator of Environmental Health
Bees and their role in pollination lead them to be an important part of many ecosystems. Humans and bees have worked together closely for thousands of years, providing a unique opportunity for research and knowledge into things like environmental pollution levels and the effects of climate change.
The health of bee populations can help us determine the health of the environment, and subsequently protect other creatures from population decline, including other pollinators.
5. Bees are a Key Part of Human Culture
Bees have inspired many engineering, cultural, and artistic ventures with their complex social structures and innovative building methods.
Humans have learned that the hexagon shapes in the honeybee’s hive are one of the most efficient structures, as it allows for maximum honey storage.
Humans use bee idioms in language and have heralded these creatures as symbols of community and fertility throughout our partnership.
What is Happening to Bee Populations?
Honey bee decline is closely monitored by beekeepers across the world, however, a decline has been recorded across all bee species in recent years, but why is this happening?
The growth of city landscapes turns natural land into concrete, tarmac, and lawns, leading to less biodiversity, fewer plants, and therefore a decrease in bee populations.
Farmers are also converting wild habitats into large areas of monoculture crops, like grains, which also reduce biodiversity and cause bees to die out as there is not enough varied plant life.
Pesticides and Disease
Pesticides are sprayed on crops and plants to prevent unwanted insects or creatures from feeding on them. Bees are not the target, but they end up being impacted by pesticides as they visit the plants and crops that have been sprayed.
This leads to either the bee dying immediately, the bee becoming disorientated and unable to return to the hive, or the chemicals lingering on the bee’s body, causing it to transport the toxic substance back to the colony where it harms the hive.
Bees can also become addicted to pesticides like neonicotinoids, which impact the efficiency of their food collection and the safety of the colony.
Pesticides can also make bees more susceptible to disease and parasites like mites. Selective breeding of honeybees has led to a decrease in genetic diversity, which makes this species particularly vulnerable to being wiped out by disease.
Changes in environmental conditions are affecting bees as their food sources are diminishing.
Many bees rely on specific plants for food, and climate change is happening so rapidly that neither the bees nor the plants can make the necessary adaptions.
Extreme weather events like heatwaves, storms, and floods are also causing the bee population to decline.
What Types of Bees are There?
1. Honey Bees
Honey bees are usually the first to come to mind when thinking about these delicate, flying insects, and they make up a large percentage of all bees in the world. In fact, there are triple the number of honey bees in Canada and the US than there are people.
Honey bees are very social, living in large colonies within hives or natural crevices like tree trunks, that collect nectar from plants which they turn into honey. These bees are kept commercially both to pollinate crops and for the honey they produce.
2. European or Western Honey Bees
The most common species that can be found across many continents is the European or Western honey bee, which has been domesticated for thousands of years. This popularity has led to it being introduced to areas like North America, Australia, and Asia, but this has resulted in a decline of native bee species.
Honey bees might take center stage, but there are actually 20,000 individually recorded bee species that are an important part of the environment. The bumblebee is another well-known species of bee that live in small colonies and are excellent pollinators because of their fuzzy bodies that help to collect pollen.
4. Carpenter Bees
Carpenter bees are a common sight in many parts of the world and are easily recognizable because of their large size, solitary lifestyle, and dark color, and they nest by creating tunnels in wood.
5. Mason Bees
Mason bees are the original native species in North America and are gentle, solitary bees that collect pollen rather than nectar, like the honeybee.
It is interesting to note that they are three times better pollinators than honeybees as they specifically collect pollen from plants. This is because Mason bees only live for one season, so do not need to make a winter food source of honey.
What Can We Do to Help Bees?
Adopt Organic and Natural Farming
Adopting completely organic and natural farming techniques, or at the very least, banning the most toxic pesticides and only using rapidly degradable chemicals, would lead to an increase in bee populations.
The bees would no longer be negatively affected by these damaging chemicals, and biodiversity in these areas would begin to increase.
Plant Bee-friendly Flowers
People living in urban environments can also help by planting bee-friendly flowers like lavender, lilac, and foxglove, as well as providing areas for bees to shelter in outdoor areas. Wild habitats should be protected to preserve ecosystems so that all species, including bees, can flourish.
Increase Diversity of Bees
We should aim to reduce our focus on honey bees to increase the diversity of bees and protect native bee species. This is not only important to the environment but also to farmers, as different bee species are better at pollinating certain crops.
Help Restore Native Bees
Helping to restore native bee species will help humans too. Mason bees used to be the predominant bee in North America until honey bees were introduced. However, in terms of their impact on the natural world, Mason bees have a 95% pollination rate, while honeybees have a 5% pollination rate.
Related content: What are the Goals of Wildlife Conservation?
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