Bees are amazing little creatures that are always around us. But unless you’re a gardener, you may never have paid very much attention to them — except maybe if one stung you! But these colorful little critters are actually hugely important, both for the ecosystem as a whole, and also for us humans specifically. Sadly, bees are in trouble. Big trouble.
When most of us think of bees, probably the first thing that comes to mind (if it isn’t a memory of having been stung) is beehives. Bees are famous for building hives! Hives are where bees keep their honey, which is probably the next thing you think about when you think of bees.
But actually, not all bees make hives. Bumblebees tend to live in burrows in the ground, and don’t even store any honey in them. In fact, the kind of bees which we most often think about — the ones that beekeepers keep and the ones that produce all of our honey — are actually new to this place. Like the settlers who first brought them to North America in the 1600s, the Western Honey Bee actually comes from Europe.
So why would European settlers go through the trouble of transporting hives of bees across the Atlantic? Well, to understand that, you need to know a bit about the important role of bees in nature, and also about the long history of our relationship with bees.
The Quest for Pollen
We are lucky enough to live in a world full of beautiful plants. Flowers of all shapes, sizes and colors decorate our landscapes, our homes and all natural spaces. Plants have been producing these wonderful displays for millions of years — and they’ve been putting quite a bit of their energy into it, too! But actually, it isn’t really for our benefit that plants make their gorgeous flowers. They do it, of course, to attract pollinators. And bees are one of nature’s favorites.
Most flowers, like mammals, need a partner in order to reproduce. They have a peculiar challenge though, in that unlike us they cannot move. The flowering plants have developed a system, whereby they produce nectar in their flowers, which they offer to insects and birds. In exchange for this nectar, the visitors pick up some pollen, which they take with them to the next flower.
All over the world, bees act as pollinators for the local plants. They’re so good at it, that many plants now rely on bees. A single colony of honey bees can be home to tens of thousands of bees. That’s a lot of mouthes to feed.
The honey which humans and other animals collect from beehives is actually meant as food for the young larvae and as food reserves for cold weather. Honey is also needed for the production of the wax which make up the beehives. And all that honey is made from nectar. Which means the bees have a lot of flowers to visit.
We’ve all heard of the honey bee’s famous waggle dance. Bees use this dance to communicate to their hivemates the location of prime foraging sites, which can be miles away from home. And amazingly, when a bee goes out to collect nectar, they tend to stick to a single type of flower. That means a greater likelihood that the plants will be pollinated, and is a fascinating testament to the efficiency of natural systems.
But bees aren’t just important for the health of the ecosystem. Bees have become very import for our modern way of life.
Bees and People
We humans have been taking advantage of bees for thousands of years. All over the world people love honey, and will go to great lengths to get it. Climbing tall trees in order to punch your hand into a beehive is a pretty extreme thing to do. But people do it.
Of course, we’ve also learned the art of bee keeping, and have semi-domesticated these famously hardworking little beings so that we don’t have to take the big risks to get at their delicious honey.
But honey actually isn’t the only reason we need to keep bees around. When European settlers came to North America, they didn’t just bring western honey bees with them. They also brought the fruits and vegetables they were used to eating in Europe. And many of these fruits and vegetables — up to 70% — are all pollinated by the honey bee. This, more than any other reason, is why western honey bees are not so prevalent in North America.
In today’s world of industrialized agriculture, bees are living in conditions unlike any they have experienced before. And unlike any that evolution has prepared them for.
When we think of a beekeeper, we might conjure up quaint rustic visions of eccentric homesteaders living off the grid and making their own candles. While these sorts of small-time beekeepers are certainly still around, this probably isn’t a very accurate description of how most bees are kept. Because while the crops farmers and orchardists grow need bees around to pollinate them, most farmers don’t have the time or the inclination to keep their own bees. They rely, instead, on a mechanized mobile beekeeping industry.
The way the beekeeping industry works is that, every season, a large truck carrying many bee colonies will arrive at a farm. They unload the bees, and take off, returning later to pick the bees up. Their honey is harvested, and they are moved on to another site.
This lifestyle is very rough on the bees. Because they lose so much honey, they end up being fed with artificial sugars. Like other animals in industrial agriculture, they are kept in huge numbers in confined spaces, making them more vulnerable to disease. Since the 1980s, the USDA has been recording an onslaught of new diseases attacking bee colonies, from fungal infections to viruses to parasites.
And on top of this, our agricultural bees are being released on farms where lethal insecticides are sprayed on a regular basis. One particular group of pesticides, called neonicotinoids, have long been suspected of causing massive bee die offs. These pesticides came to be widely used in the 1990s — coinciding almost precisely with the growing crisis of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). They are now among the most commonly used insecticides in the United States.
By 2007, large commercial beekeepers were reporting losses of between 30-90% of their colonies. After a 23% decline in bee population in 2013, the U.S government decided to create a task force to investigate the crisis.
But of course, it isn’t just our agricultural bees that are threatened. Wild bees, like the bumblebees, are also exposed to these pesticides. Bees are also under added pressure due to loss of wildflowers and habitat and to the effects of climate change. The bees are in trouble. And they need our help.
How We Can Help
Tackling the challenges faced by our fuzzy pollinator friends won’t be easy. Pesticide use and climate change are civilization-defining issues that will take the work of generations to address. But like any journey, this one starts at home.
We can choose to support the farmers and growers who work with nature rather than against it. We can support local and organic agriculture. If you eat honey, you can buy it from local producers who you can trust. Should you have the space and energy, you can consider keeping your own bees. Of course, you also opt for sweetener alternatives such as Stevia and Manuka honey.
Of course, the world doesn’t end in our backyard. The struggle to protect the bees is global. In Europe and the United States there have been growing attempts by lawmakers and advocacy groups to restrict the use of neonicotinoids. Bayer — one of the world’s largest pesticide producers and a leading producer and developer of neonics — has been lobbying hard to prevent restrictions. But the people are fighting back.
Canadian beekeepers are suing Bayer and Syngenta for their role in causing bee deaths. The European Union has moved to temporarily ban three neonic insecticides after 3 million Europeans demanded it. Activists in the UK are suing the government for continuing to allow them. Germany, Italy and France have all taken steps to restrict the use of these dangerous pesticides.
The United States government in recent months has been expressing more concern over the plight of bees and the risks of neonicotinoids. While we haven’t yet seen serious restrictions or bans, the tide is turning. We need to keep pressure on our politicians and representatives to stand up to the chemical industry lobbyists and protect our precious pollinators.
Get involved! You need bees and the bees need you.