It is no exaggeration to say that mankind’s future on this planet depends on the honeybee. We are increasingly hearing about how crucial bees are for the environment and the non-negotiable need to do what we can to help them thrive. Despite my love of bees, it was only recently I discovered how much I did not know about them for example, how intelligent they are; the pollination process; the work that goes into a jar of honey; buying the correct honey and how we can effectively help the bee populations. I will cover all of these in today’s blog.
There are almost 20 thousand known species of bees which can be divided into 7-8 different families. About 140 million years ago bees began to evolve from wasps, this happened as they began to switch from prey to pollen. As the bees evolved so did flowers to produce delicious nectar and attractive flowers! 90% of bees live solitary lives and do not produce honey or bees wax. This makes the Honeybee clearly the most impressive success story.
Honeybees live in highly organized social groups who efficiently exploit pollen and nectar for honey. The colony live in a hive and each member has an important role to play as they are all dependent on each other. There are three types of roles within the colony – the workers, the drones, and the queen.
- The workers: are sexually undeveloped females who will usually never lay eggs. Their tasks include cleaning the hive, collecting pollen and nectar, caring for the Queen, constructing bees wax, and guarding the entrance.
- The drones: These are the male honeybees and their primary role is to mate with an unfertilized Queen.
- The Queen: The Queen is randomly chosen at birth and is exclusively fed a diet of ‘royal jelly’ which speeds her development. She then kills her competition and assumes position on the throne. Her main job is to reproduce, at her peak she can lay 15,000 eggs in a day. She also produces pheromones which act as a social glue for the colony.
If you are not already in awe of the honeybee let me tell you this, they communicate with each other through dance! Yes, a ‘waggle dance’. When a bee returns after finding a good pollen location, they perform the ‘waggle dance’ to explain exactly where they found it. This is true for locations up to 5km away. The dance involves walking and shaking their behind back and forth in a pattern that looks like a figure of eight. Keep in mind this dance is done in a dark hive on a dance floor the size of your finger nail.
Bees are known to pollinate 30% of the world’s crops and 90% of the world’s wild plants! Without them we would have no coffee, avocados, apples, almonds, kiwi, cashews, blueberries, grapes and the list continues. We rely so heavily on bees that if they were to go extinct, we would soon follow.
In California for example, the large-scale monoculture (one crop on a large amount of land) is heavily reliant on the honeybees. So much so that hives are transported around the state depending on the different crops growing season. The bees will start in the almond fields (the almonds grown in California are 80% of the worlds almond supply despite not even being native to the region), next they are transported North for the apples, peaches, and berries season and then onto where they are needed next and this pattern continues. This reliance has associated issues and complications some of which are: the species of bees used are European Honey bees who cannot fight off the American parasites, viruses and bacteria, bee hives are constantly been stolen in the area as they are of high value and there is a serious over reliance on these honeybees for large scale crop production.
‘A food worth of approximately 20 billion dollars in the US is at the whim of honeybees and their keepers. So basically, bees are breathing, buzzing gold’ – National Geographic Overheard.
Threats to the Bees
Over the past ten years we have seen a huge collapse in bee colonies – known as colony collapse disorder. This is due to a variety of influences such as
- Pesticides: These can be harmful to bees themselves but also then forces them to abandon their hive. Due to the distress they may not form another hive, without their colony they will not survive.
- Parasites, Viruses and Bacteria: these are a major issue when bees have not evolved alongside certain parasites as they have no defense against it. E.g. the varroa mite and the European honey bees who have no natural defense.
- Global Warming: This is affecting the blooming cycle of certain plants which has affected the synchronized pattern between flower blooming and pee pollination.
- Habitat Loss: destroying hives and sources of nectar and pollen.
- Murder Hornets (Asian Giant Hornet): A beekeeper in Washington where the hornets have recently been found stated that these murder hornets could ‘decimate’ the entire west coast honeybee population. Japanese honeybees co-evolved with these hornets so they have learnt how to fight back by covering the hornets in a mass and therefore increasingly the heat so much that it cannot survive. Unfortunately, Western honeybees are open to attack as they have no defense mechanisms.
What Can We Do?
- Plant wildflowers or a ‘bee garden’ to combat habitat loss such as wildflowers and plants rich in pollen and nectar. Provide trees too! They are also a great source of pollen.
- Buy Pure and Local Honey. A study was carried out in 2011 by Andrew Schneider where he found that 75% of honey being sold in the United Sates was NOT honey and most likely essentially a syrup imported from China. The very best honey that you can buy is from your local beekeeper (local honey supposedly helps with hay fever symptoms and usually the most sustainably).
- If you have land offer your space for a hive to your local beekeeper association!
- Do not use pesticides.
- Educate yourself on bees!
- Look out for the ‘Bee Better Certified’ seal on food products. This indicates the product was made with bee friendly methods in the case where honey or almonds were used.
Learn More Do More:
- Watch as Japanese Honey bees fight off Murder Hornet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UNroEwFxh6I
- National Geographic Overheard Podcast: ‘The Honey Bee Chop Shop’ explaining why bees are so valuable and their use in large-scale commercial farming. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/podcasts/overheard/season-1/episode-8-honeybee-chop-shop/
- Honey Bees & the almond industry in California. Article and investigation by the Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/07/honeybees-deaths-almonds-hives-aoe
- The New York Bee Sanctuary: Ways to Save the Bees http://www.newyorkbeesanctuary.org/blog/2016/3/3/10-ways-you-can-help-save-the-bees
- Andrew Schneider, 2011. ‘Tests Show Most Store Honey Isn’t Honey’. https://www.foodsafetynews.com/2011/11/tests-show-most-store-honey-isnt-honey/
- For Irish readers https://irishbeekeeping.ie this site will direct you to honey producers local to you and lots of other information