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Bees Mean Business: How Honey Bees Shape Our Food System

Here in California, an unusually warm winter delivers the illusion of Spring. Though March 21st officially marks the Spring equinox, honeysuckle flowers have already put out their sweet blossoms and the air is alive with the humming of the honey bee. Honey bees herald the coming of luscious fruit and longer days, and their gentle song announces the promise of new life. Our world revolves around the industrious schedules of these little creatures. Without the honey bee’s pollination, strawberries, peaches, and melons would virtually cease to exist!

Honeybees and honeysuckle. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Honey bees and honeysuckle. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

 

Bees, A Popular Pollinator

Though birds, bats, butterflies, moths, beetles, and the wind are great examples of pollinators, bees are the world’s number one pollinator. According to Cornell University, honey bees are responsible for pollinating around 70 percent of the world’s crops— which when you think about it, translates to a HUGE amount of food.

What is pollination? When a worker bee collects nectar and pollen from the flower of a plant, some of the bright orange pollen from the male reproductive organ of the flower sticks to the hairs of her body. As she visits the next flower, some of this pollen is rubbed off onto the female reproductive organ of the flower and fertilization occurs.   There is disturbing evidence that pollinating animals worldwide have suffered from loss of habitat, chemical misuse, diseases, parasites and climate change. Currently, neonicotinoid pesticides (commonly used in US agricultural)  are one of the largest contemporary threats to bee colonies. The wide scale use of these pesticides has been reported to kill a hive’s queen and thereby decrease the reproduction rates of a colony.

A Bee, whose honey-colored hairs are sprinkled with bright orange pollen. Photo Source: Wiki Commons

A bee, whose honey-colored hairs are sprinkled with bright orange pollen. Photo Source: Wiki Commons

 

Understanding Their Role

Honey bees are social insects that live together in large, well-organized colonies. The advance communication and organizational skills  of the honey bee have been of interest to entomologists (bug experts) for decades.  Bee colonies typically consists of three kinds of adult bees: workers, drones, and a queen.

Workers: Workers are the smallest and most common bees occupying the colony.  All worker bees are females; yet unlike their queen,  worker bees are unable to produce offspring. They are responsible for cleaning the hive, collecting pollen and nectar, building beeswax combs, ventilation, and feeding the queen. The lifespan of the worker bee is anywhere from six weeks to six months.

Drones: Drones (male bees) are the largest bees in the colony and are charged with the task of fertilizing the virgin queen during her mating flight. Since drones require three times as much food as the rest of the colony, their numbers are scarce. When cold weather begins in the fall and pollen/nectar resources become threatened, drones usually are forced out into the cold and left to starve.

Queen: Each colony has only one sexually developed female, known as the queen bee. The queen is responsible for populating the entire colony and during peak production, a queen can lay up to 1,500 eggs per day! Queens are larger in size than other females in their colonies and have a lifespan of 2-5 years (some bees only live for 30 days). Research has found that queen bees can actually vaccinate their colony against diseases.  Though queens rarely leave the nest, their forager bees pick up environmental pathogens while gathering pollen and use this same pollen to create “royal jelly” — a food made just for the queen that contains bacteria from the outside environment. The queen ingests the bacteria, stores it in her “fat body” (similar to a human liver), and transfers it through her blood to her developing eggs, essentially “vaccinating” her babies.

A Road Trip to California—That’s Nuts! 

There’s one crop that demands more bees than any other—almonds. Eat an almond anywhere in the world and there’s a good chance that almond was grown in California. As of 2017, the Golden State produces approximately 2.2 billion pounds of almonds each season. This time of year, billions of honey bees across the US embark on road trips to assist the California farmers who need the bees to pollinate their crops. As consumers buy products like almond milk and almond butter, the demand for the already popular nut (and the bees that make that nut possible), continues to rise. Currently, it is estimated that this year alone, close to 30 billion bees will travel from out-of-state to meet the pollination needs of Central California’s almond industry.

Crates of honeybees on the back of a flatbed truck.

Crates of honey bees on the back of a flatbed truck.

Honey—How is it Made? 

Aside from being pro pollinators, honey bees manufacture a liquid that has been touted as the “elixir of the gods”—honey. Honey has an extensive history around the world, the oldest remains of which have been found in a tomb in the country of Georgia, dating from 4,700 to 5,500 years ago. It is used to sweeten food and drink, soothe sore throughs, and can serve as an antibacterial for wounds.  Though humans have enjoyed the consumption of honey for millennia, honey’s natural purpose is to feed the bees. As bees collect nectar, they use their long tongues (called proboscis) like a straw to help them suck nectar out of flowers. They store the nectar in a second stomach and transport it back to the hive where it is converted to honey and capped with beeswax for later consumption.

Honey bees are hardworking masters of communication and planning and their existence is vital to our own. So next time you’re in the path of a honey bee, think twice before you swat it away.