Everyone knows about bees. Whether you learned about how they pollinate flowers growing up in school, or love to eat honey, or have been taught to fear them because of their stinger, we generally all have heard and seen them at some point in our lives. But what we don’t think many people realize is that bees are easily one of the most important insects on the planet. The work that they do helps to provide billions of dollars worth of food for not only us, but also other species, and if they did not exist our world would be a lot less colorful. What many people are also not aware of is that bees are in peril. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, more than half of North America’s 4,000 native bee species are in decline, with 1 in 4 species at risk of extinction. We are going to take a look at how these tiny workers survive and provide us with one out of every four bites we take, why they are disappearing at alarming rates, and what each one of us can do to help.
The Buzz and the Bees
There are around 20,000 known species of bees in the world. The Perdita minima is the world’s smallest bee measuring in at less than two millimeters long, and one of the larger species is the carpenter bee who is known for being able to excavate holes in wood. Around 80% of flowering plants in the world survive thanks to bees. In the United States alone there are 4,000 native species of bees and around 400 still waiting to be identified. However the most popular and well known has to be the honey bee. As the only insect that produces food eaten by man, honey bees play a vital role in many environments and cultures. What we found interesting when learning more about them is that they are actually not native to the United States and were brought over from Europe by settlers. (Fun fact: Fermented honey, known as mead, is the most ancient fermented beverage. The term “honey moon” originated with the Norse practice of consuming large quantities of mead during the first month of a marriage.)
There are three types of bees that live in honey bee hives or colonies. The queen, the workers, and the drones. Each plays an important role in maintaining the hive and making sure that things run smoothly.
As the name entails, the queen bee is the one who runs the whole hive. She actually produces chemicals that guide the behavior of the other bees. She is the only one to lay and produce eggs that will become the next generation of bees, and she can lay around 1,500 of them each day. However during summer months when the hive is at its maximum strength, she is extra busy and can lay up to 2,500 eggs a day. Compared to the rest of the hive inhabitants, the queen actually lives quite awhile. The average lifespan of the queen is 2-4 years. When she dies, the worker bees will create a new queen by feeding one of the young larva a special food called “royal jelly” that will make that larva fertile and rise up to be the next leader.
The worker bees are all females, and they are amazingly hard workers. Their roles include gathering food in the form of pollen and nectar from flowers, building and protecting the hive, feeding and taking care of the queen AND the larva, as well as cleaning the hive and circulating the air by beating their wings. Workers are the ones you see flying around outside of the hive. They can move too. A honey bee’s wings stroke 11,400 times per minute which makes their distinctive buzzing sounds, and they can reach up to 15 miles per hour. That speed helps them get around and be efficient as they visit anywhere from 50 to 100 plants and flowers a day. They only live for around five to six weeks, but in that time she will produce around a twelfth of a teaspoon of honey. We would love to get all the energy and efficiency that they have.
The male bees all serve one role, the drones. Their sole purpose is to mate with the queen. During spring and summer, several hundred of them can be found in each hive, but once the winter months come and the hive goes into survival mode, the drones are kicked out and on their own. What we also found interesting (and made us chuckle just a bit), is that male bees aren’t equipped with stingers. You might occasionally see a male drone bee outside the hive. Once the females of the hive kick them to the curb, they have been known to meet in drone or bachelor congregations where they hope to find their next queen. Sound familiar?
The BEE-auty of Bees
We mentioned before how bees provide BILLIONS of dollars of food each year, but let’s really look into how much our lives would be different if there were no more bees. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), bees of all sorts pollinate approximately 75 percent of the fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in the United States. That equates to around $15 billion dollars in crop value in just the US alone. The Honey Bee Conservancy states that without bees pollinating these plants, we would lose 100% of almonds crops, 90% of all apples, blueberries, and cucumbers, 80% of cherries, and 70% of all the watermelon that is produced. Not to mention a huge decline in squash, buckwheat, coffee, and hundreds of other fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains that are essential to our diet. According to USDA reports, 2.67 million honey-producing colonies in 2017 generated 1.47 million pounds of raw honey. People love honey, and we can’t have honey without bees. Plus all of the gorgeous flowers! We don’t know about you guys, but living in a world without the beautiful natural flowers and plants does not sound like a place we would want to be.
Bees in Trouble
Every year, it is being found that more and more entire colonies of bees are dying off and disappearing. Between 2015 and 2016, an estimated 44% of beekeeper colonies died, and just three years ago the first bee was added to the endangered species list. There are a variety of factors that are contributing to the decline and death of bees all over the world. The top ones include parasites, viruses, pesticides, lack of nutrition, and climate change. One that is being more commonly found throughout colonies is the Varroa mite (Varroa destructor). It is an external parasite that has spread from its original host, the Asian honey bee, to nearly all Western honey bees worldwide. This mite weakens honey bees by sucking hemolymph, or the bees “blood,” from its host and by transmitting bee pathogens. Pesticides are a practice that has been used for years, but thankfully is starting to get more attention and research being done to identify that harm that it is doing to wildlife, our water sources, and ourselves. But more attention is needed. Many forms of pesticides have been found to kill bees immediately. However, there are also insecticides that have a sublethal effect on honey bees, and result in reduced larval survival, altered foraging behavior, or shortened lifespan of adult bees. While some factors and causes of the decline of bees are out of our control, there are many more actions we can each take to help support the survival of our buzzing friend that provides us with so much.
The Honey Bee Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting bees and securing food justice through education, research, habitat creation, and advocacy. They work with a wide range of nonprofits, companies, schools, government agencies, and organizations to help spread the awareness of the perils bees are facing, and provide the tools needed to help make a difference. You can find a ton of ways you can join their campaign of #BEETHESOLUTION on their website, and we will give you three of our favorite actions we are taking to help save bees.
1. Put Out a Bee Bath.
Bees need water to help them digest their food and survive. By putting out a small bowl or plate of water in your garden with some little stones or pebbles for them to rest on, you can provide a safe place for them to grab a drink while foraging for nectar and pollinating your plants.
2. Become a Citizen Scientist and Host a BeeBlitz.
You can help gather data for scientists all over the world that are studying bees and how we can better save them. Plus who doesn’t love to get outside and enjoy nature. All you will need is your phone or tablet with the iNaturalist app. You can do it alone or grab your friends and family for a fun adventure of looking for bees around your area and taking pictures. Visit https://thehoneybeeconservancy.org/beeblitz/ to learn more and get step by step instructions on how you can help.
3. Say No to Chemicals and Pesticides.
Bees are tiny creatures with sensitive systems. Avoid using any synthetic chemicals or pesticides. Instead, choose organic products or look for natural solutions like introducing some ladybugs or praying mantis, and adding natural compost to make your plants and soil thrive. Take it a step further by shopping at your local farmers market and grabbing organic produce to ensure you are supporting the health of not only bees but entire ecosystems all over the world.
Even if insects and bugs might tend to creep you out just a little, we cannot deny all the amazing good that they do for us and for our planet. Always try to remember that the safest thing you can do is leave them alone, admire them from a distance, and let them do their thing. They do not want to hurt us, and especially would rather not sting us as that is a death sentence for them. Plant some bee friendly flowers or plants, buy local organic honey, and keep working to be the amazing wildlife guardians we know you want to be supporting a world where all things can thrive.
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- Bee Issues. (2020, February 04). Retrieved August 15, 2020, from https://pollinator.org/learning-center/bee-issues?gclid=EAIaIQobChMI2tvu1Nmd6wIVC77ACh3ovARoEAAYASAAEgICVPD_BwE
- Bee The Solution. (2019, December 16). Retrieved August 15, 2020, from https://thehoneybeeconservancy.org/bee-the-solution/?gclid=Cj0KCQjw7Nj5BRCZARIsABwxDKLbHrHG1WEtmfmFbckwYojk4E5KKatQInQWUe6EQ83IftNH0CT-WFkaApXtEALw_wcB
- Fun Facts. (2016, February 29). Retrieved August 15, 2020, from https://americanbeejournal.com/tiposlinks/fun-facts/
- Tucker, J. (2019, January 22). Why Bees Are Important to Our Planet. Retrieved August 15, 2020, from https://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/why-bees-are-important-to-our-planet/
- Why are bees important? (n.d.). Retrieved August 15, 2020, from https://www.usgs.gov/faqs/why-are-bees-important?qt-news_science_products=0
Enjoyed reading all about bees. I have lilacs and peonies in my front lawn and the bees just love them. I leave them alone as I love all nature and living things! I and my family members don’t kill insects. We respect all life! I will definitely leave a plate of water with pebble stones in my front yard and back yard as you’ve suggested and I was totally unaware that bees needed water nearby! Thank you for this information!