Why Are Bees Important?
You may have heard recently that bee populations are declining. So why are bees important to humans anyhow? Bees play a critical role in the biodiversity of our planet. From keeping food on our plates to helping forests grow, bees are crucial to the very existence of nearly every living thing here on Earth.
Bees Are Pollinators
Bees are essential to the food humans eat. Bees are pollinators, meaning they deliver pollen from one plant to another while gathering nectar for themselves. Insects and some bat species are also pollinators, but none are as busy as the bee when it comes to pollinating plants. Bees can visit as many as 1500 flowers in a single day, returning to the nest only 15 times. That’s 100 flowers per trip! Bees are responsible for pollinating all sorts of foods we eat every day, such as melons, squash, some cucumbers, and many fruit trees. All of these depend on pollinators for fertilization. Almond crops depend solely on bees to help them reproduce at bloom time.
Imagine having to eat the same few foods every day for the rest of your life. How about a world where there was a minimal variety of berries or only two tree fruits to choose from? Imagine not being able to access hundreds of different foods that we are accustomed to eating. Now, mind you, not every edible thing we eat needs to be pollinated by bees. But without pollinators, the variety of foods we eat would be significantly limited. Nearly 80% of the world’s foods need animal-mediated pollination. Without bees, it would be much more challenging to acquire the variety of minerals and nutrients needed in our diets.
In 2014, as part of its “Share the Buzz” campaign, a Whole Foods Market in Rhode Island pulled 237 products from their produce department to show what a world without bees would look like. That’s over 50% of the 453 products normally stocked on their shelves. The following year, they did the same in the dairy aisle to show bees are important to feeding “everything from songbirds to grizzly bears.”
What makes bees important to pollination?
Seeds are necessary to create herbs, fruits, and vegetables. So why can’t you just go to the store and buy some seeds instead of needing bees?
There are many types of foods that do not need bees to fertilize. Tomatoes, for example, are a self-pollinating fruit. Corn is an example of a wind-pollinated vegetable. If the plants are rustled by the wind, it will yield a more abundant crop than if no wind exists. Beans and peas are also self-fertile. Root and leafy vegetables like onions, carrots, and lettuces will produce fruit even without the presence of bees. Once these seeds are planted, many food varieties will produce fruit, even without the presence of bees.
However, pollination is necessary to produce seeds. That is where the bees get their importance. Plants produce flowers to assist in making seeds. Flowers must be pollinated to be able to make seeds. Pollen is transferred from the male portion of the plant called the stamen to the female part, the stigma. Fertilization is accomplished when the powder, stuck to the tiny hairs on the body of the insect falls off onto the new plant. Once deposited on the stigma, the pollen travels down the pistil to the ovule, where seeds are formed.
Nature works in mysterious ways. Often when a plant is brightly colored, it means it needs an insect or other animal to carry its pollen from the male to the female portion of the plant. The brightness or sweetness of the flower is a way for the plant to attract insects, like bees, to the flower to help it on its reproductive path. These types of flowers often have short stamens with large flowers to give the insects a place to land. Plants that dull in color, have little to no scent with short or non-existent pedals are often those that are pollinated by wind or are self-fertile.
Why else are bees important?
Bees produce food
Not only do bees help us grow more and varied crops, but they also have a delicious sweet treat that humans (and bears) love to eat. HONEY! It is estimated that the average person eats about 1.3lbs of honey per year. Bees are also important for wild, domestic, and farm animals too. Wild birds and mammals survive on nuts, seeds, and berries that have been pollinated by bees. Cows also benefit from bees as they eat alfalfa, which is pollinated mainly by the leafcutter bee.
Bees also produce a secondary product that humans use much more than one would think– beeswax. Beeswax is most often used to make candles, but did you know that beeswax is also used in beauty products such as lip balms, lotions, soaps, and makeup. Other lesser-known uses for beeswax include lubricants, first aid salves, furniture sealants, shoe polish, and much more. Beeswax can also be used as an effective firestarter.
FUN FACT: Mead or honey wine is the oldest alcoholic drink known to man, and it is made by fermenting honey and water with yeast to create a sweet wine.
Bees are a food source for other animals
Not only are bees important to creating food for other species, but they can also be the food for other species. There are at least 24 species of birds that prey on bees, including starlings, blackbirds, magpies, and the ruby-throated hummingbird.
Badgers, foxes, weasels, and mice have been known to attack bee nests and eat the honey, grubs, or bees living within them. Bears will consume bees and wasps while going after their main “prey;” the honey.
Other insects are also known to nosh on bees. The most common insects known to snack on bees are dragonflies, spiders, praying mantis, and robber flies. Geckos are also known to pursue wasps nests to eat the larvae inside. So bees are vital to the food chain as they not only serve to help food grow but also help other species to sustain life by becoming the food those animals eat.
Bees help the economy
According to the USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) bees are responsible for pollinating about 1/3 of the fruits, nuts and vegetables that are grown in the United States. This accounts for roughly $15-20 Billion in increased crop value annually. Without bees, pollination could still occur, but not in an economical way. For instance, Chinese pear groves should be pollinated by bees. However, because of the overuse of pesticides, there is no longer a healthy bee population to do the job. Now humans have to climb pear trees and pollinate them using a brush! Imagine the expense of hiring workers to pollinate pear trees? The cost would be astronomical!
Bees are found all over the world. Their role as pollinators helps diverse plants grow in geographic areas such as tropical rainforests, savannah woodlands, and deciduous forests. Without this variance in landscapes, the world would turn into a vast desert, devoid of trees, flowers, and shrubs. The importance of bees in tree growth to produce oxygen that all living beings need to survive is without question; trees are the lungs of the Earth. But trees, grass, shrubs, and flowers also help to stabilize landscapes and soil structures and keep those various landscapes habitable by native species. So you see, bees play an essential part in the beauty of the scenery that you see all around you.
Being so crucial to biodiversity and plant growth means we all have a place to live. Without bees, our landscapes would crumble away and turn to dust. Without bees, we wouldn’t have trees to use for lumber to build the houses we live in. Woodland animals would lose their place to live. So many things we take for granted would cease to be if there were no sustainable habitat for humans and animals alike to thrive in. Not to mention that without the variety of wildflowers and trees, the landscape would be pretty dull to look at. Bees are important to help create beauty around us.
How You Can Help Bees
Many people want to help the declining population of bees. There are many things you can do. One of the simplest things to do is offer the bees a place to re-hydrate. Busy bees are hard workers, and quite often, if you see a dead bee, it is because it was dehydrated. You can create hydration stations for bees by placing small bowls of water with stones or sticks in it for the insects to land on.
You can also plant bee-friendly gardens. It is important to note that one should plant native plants. Factors like seasons, soil conditions, and other circumstances will determine how well your garden grows. Since annual and perennial native flowers are adept to your region, they will often require less water, fertilizer and pesticides than whatever pretty exotics your most recent catalog is advertising. Research plants that are native to your area and you will attract far more than bees, you will be rewarded with butterflies and hummingbirds as well.
Knowing which bees are native to your area is also helpful for providing nesting spots for them. Many people associate all bees with the typical nest that hangs from your eaves. Yet, most bees build nests underground or in branches hollowed out by beetles. Leave some room in your garden for burrowing bees. If you happen to live in an area with Blue Orchard Bees or other Mason bees, having some mud around will help them to create their habitat as well. It is often lack of nesting sites that limit native bees. You can also build a “bee house” or purchase one online like this one:
There are also plenty of tutorials on YouTube for building your own bee house with some lumber scraps.
Finally, it is essential to remember to go as organic as possible when planting a bee garden. Pesticides can be harmful to both the bee population and humans. You can purchase beneficial insects such as praying mantids, ladybird beetles, or green lacewings, which will help reduce the need for chemical pesticides. Additionally, allowing spiders and ants in your garden will exponentially help control pests. These two insects help to control caterpillars, which can eat your garden long before it’s ripe enough for you to consume.
Additional Interesting Facts About Bees
- Bees inspire engineering projects because the hexagon is the strongest shape per material weight
- There are over 20,000 species of bees, and roughly 25% of them reside in the United States.
- One hive can collect up to 4lbs of nectar each day
- 4lbs of nectar = 1 lb of honey
- 8 lbs of nectar = 1 lb of beeswax
American Beekeeping Federation: https://www.abfnet.org/
United States Geological Services: https://www.usgs.gov/
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service: https://www.ars.usda.gov/
U.S. Forest Service: https://www.fs.fed.us/
Canada Agriculture and Food Museum: https://ingeniumcanada.org/cafm
Penn State Center for Pollinator Research: https://ento.psu.edu/pollinators/resources-and-outreach