Why Are Honey Bees Important To Us?

A honey bee pollinating.
A honey bee pollinating.

Out of the over 2,000 species of bees known to science, the honey bee is one of the most important to humans. The genus Apis, which defines all honey bees, is made up of 7 species and 44 subspecies. Like all other bees, the honey bees have a well-structured social family made up of a queen, numerous drones, and workers. As its name suggests, the honey bee is best known for its ability to convert nectar into honey, a sticky brown substance that has numerous uses. The honey bees produce the honey as a food source for the colony, and the honey is stored in the hive as a reservoir for consumption when other food sources become hard to come by. Due to their production of honey and effectiveness as pollinators, honey bees play a significant role to humans and are reared by farmers.

The Colony Collapse Disorder

In the 2000s, scientists sounded the alarm on the decline in the population of the honey bees and particularly the western honeybees in what was, in 2006, termed as the colony collapse disorder. Originally reported in North America, the phenomenon was also witnessed in Germany, Ireland, Greece, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. The exact cause of the decline in bee numbers was not established, but numerous probabilities were fronted.

One widely-accepted theory states that the disorder was attributed to a combination of three main factors; pesticides, pathogens, and parasites. Starvation, fungi, mite infestations, and malnutrition were other possible causes behind the colony collapse disorder. Alarmed by the decline of the bees and the potential ramifications of the disappearance of bees on agriculture, governments around the world put in place measures to protect the bees. In 2013, the EU instituted a ban on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides which were linked to the drop in the bee population. The media sensationalized the story and outlined numerous factors responsible for the disorder ranging from genetically modified crops to cellphone signals. However, due to the bees’ ability to replenish their numbers at a short period (queen bees lay thousands of eggs in a day), the population of the bees gradually grew to be the highest they had been in two decades.

Honey Bees As Pollinators

As effective pollinators, honey bees are instrumental in the global production of certain foods that are reliant on insects for pollination. More than a third of all crop species in the United States including avocados, almonds, and apples, depend on honeybees for pollination. While other insects can pollinate many of these crops, it is only using the honey bee that pollination can be done on a commercial scale. Figures from the UN’s organization FAO have it that the value of crops whose pollination is reliant on honey bees stands at $0.2 trillion. Experts state that the use of bees in the pollination of crops in the United States has a notable impact on agricultural production. Crops whose pollination is dependent on the honey bee are valued at over $15 billion in the United States. Beekeepers in the United States cumulatively earn more money by renting out honey bees for pollination than from proceeds of the production of honey.

Honey Bees In Honey Production

Honey bees are best known for the production of honey. The bees produce honey after consuming nectar from flowers, which is then regurgitated by the bees after returning to the hive from foraging. A popular food item, honey is packed with numerous nutrients including sugars, vitamins, calcium, magnesium, and protein. Humans have consumed honey for thousands of years, and there are paintings on cave walls dating back 8,000 years which depict the harvesting of wild honey. Ancient civilizations believed that honey had healing abilities and was, in some kingdoms, offered to deities. While honey was originally collected from wild hives, humans semi-domesticated the honey bees by building hives near flowering plants rich in nectar. The annual global production of honey stands at over 1.78 million tons, with China being the top honey-producing country as it produces 0.49 million tons of honey each year (equivalent to about 27% of the global production).

Human Dependence On Honey Bees

Recently, a rumor spread around the globe, advanced by a group of environmentalists and anchored on the colony collapse disorder, which claimed that the disappearance of the honey bee would be detrimental on the human population. Such environmentalists stated that honey bees were crucial in the pollination of the earth’s most essential food crops and even claimed that Albert Einstein had indicated that the human beings would be extinct four years after the extinction of the bees. However, none of these claims are true. First, Einstein never made such claims on the significance of the bees to human survival. Second, the most important food crops for humans do not require bees for their pollinations, or any insects for that matter. Grains such as wheat, corn, and rice are all grasses and are, therefore, wind-pollinated. Others such as plantains, cassavas, and bananas propagate through cuttings. Yams, sweet potatoes, and potatoes propagate through tubers as they are root vegetables.

Nonetheless, honey bees still play a role in the pollination of some crops which are not crucial to human survival. Squash and pumpkins are important food sources for millions of people around the world, and these crops rely on bees for pollination. Other examples of crops which depend on bees for pollination include macadamia nuts, Brazilian nuts, the kiwifruit, avocados, mangoes, almonds, apples, watermelons, passion fruits, and the rowanberry. As is evident, most of the crops which require bees for their pollination are either nuts or fruits, and while these crops are important for nutrition, human survival is not hedged on their survival. Of high import to note is the fact that these plants are pollinated by different species of bees including the bumblebees, carpenter bees, orchid bees, squash bees, and solitary bees, and so do not depend solely on the honey bees for their pollination. However, sources also state that the disappearance of the honey bee could cause the total loss of at least seven major crops in the United States whose pollination is done commercially using honey bees.


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