Worldwide, there are around 25,000 different types of bee species. This huge number is divided into over 4,000 genera (groups) of bees, which are then further subdivided into just nine families of bees. The Apidae family is the most well-known family, with familiar members such as the honeybee, carpenter bee, and bumblebee.
All of these species dutifully serve as pollinators of our agricultural world and they are extremely efficient at what they do. Bees have stiff hairs and pockets on their legs, allowing them to collect more pollen and transport it between plants. Bumblebees appear to be even more successful at pollinating certain crops due to their larger sizes and more vigorous vibrations. This helps to better disperse pollen amongst the flowers and fruits at each visit.
Pollination is essentially plant reproduction. It is the transfer of pollen from the anther (male part of the flower) to the stigma (female part of the flower). From that meeting, a plant’s seed, nut, or fruit is then formed.
Some plants rely on animals to assist with their pollination process, while others can pollinate themselves or rely on the wind. Bees also tend to focus their energies on one species of plant at a time. By visiting the same flowers of a particular species in one outing, much higher quality pollination occurs. Rather than spreading many different pollens to different plants which are not being pollinated, all plants of one species are getting an even distribution of vital pollen from others of its same species.
In the past few decades, the population of bees has declined steadily by 30 percent each year. Researchers have grappled with understanding what exactly is causing the decline in the bee population and at the same time, we have been forced to face the reality of what the loss of the bee means for the large, global ecosystem. Similar to many other species, the bee plays a vital role in keeping the balance between other species and their environment. In the case of bees and humans, these little insects are largely responsible for regulating our food supply.
A new study published in Nature Communications found that just two percent of wild bee species contributes 80% of the crop pollination visits observed globally. This means that if this small percentage of bees disappears, then 80% of our agricultural system could collapse.
70 of the top 100 food crops grown worldwide rely on pollinators, which is equivalent to 90% of the world’s nutrition. Considering that around 850 million people across the world are currently suffering from lack of food, coupled with the fact that the global population is set to increase up to nine billion by 2050, we’re going to need help from the all the bees to avoid mass food scarcity.
Bees are not only extremely important for humans, but also for entire ecosystems to function. Bees allow plants to reproduce through pollination and those plants contribute to the food system by feeding animals – aside from humans – such as birds and insects. If the food source for these animals was diminished or lost completely, it would cause the entire food chain to suffer. Approximately 80% of flowering plants depend on pollination. If this process stops, there is real potential to lose the food for us, birds, and all of the other animals that depend on plants for food.
There are a variety of threats facing the bee population, including habitat loss and climate change, but the most pressing threat to bees is pesticides. Ironically, humans spray pesticides on crops to protect them from pests that could harm their productivity, but these chemicals are also responsible for killing bees which make many of these same crops possible. Neonicotinoids are some of the most harmful pesticides to bees as they function by attacking the insect’s nervous system which can lead to instantaneous death, but also bees that do survive exposure can become disoriented and forget how to find their way back to the hive, creating Colony Collapse Disorder. This abnormal phenomenon that occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen, plenty of food and a few nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees and the queen. Hives cannot sustain themselves without worker bees and would eventually die.
The good news is that this class of pesticide has already been banned in the European Union and many stores in the U.S. are opting to remove them from their shelves for the bees. There is still a long way to go before neonicotinoids are no longer a threat to bees, but progress is certainly being made.
How can you help?
- Plant bee-friendly habitat in your garden, yard or outdoor space.
- Support organic farmers who do not use chemicals on their crops.
- Avoid using pesticides.
- Supply a safe watering space for them.
- Consider sponsoring or adopting a bee hive with a local beekeeper.
- Protect a swarm. If they are relocating, leave them alone.
- Spread awareness.
- Start your own hive.
- Stop killing bees.
Bees are some of the hardest working creatures on the planet, and because of their laborious work ethic, we owe many thanks to this amazing and under-appreciated insect. Our lives, and the world as a whole, would be a much different place if bees didn’t exist.