Importance of Bees

Sep 1, 2020 | Blog, Garden

Bees have been working hard to keep you fed your entire life.

One out of every three bites of food you eat is made possible
by bees pollinating our food crops.

You eat because bees pollinate.

But what if the bee population declined and there weren’t enough bees to pollinate all of the crops grown around the world?

The diversity of our food supply would dramatically change in one year.  The importance of bees is undeniable.

 

Bee pollination supports 90 different commonly eaten food crops such as apples, beans, blueberries and almonds. Without bees and other pollinators, our food supplies would become severely limited.

Bees are a keystone species. This means that they are crucial to the health and stability of an ecosystem. Keystone species don’t necessarily have the greatest population in a specific region, but they contribute in a way that their absence would be devastating for the other living things around them.  Around the world, there are approximately 20,000 different species of bees.  Some bees produce honey, but not the majority. Solo bees, for example, don’t live in hives or produce honey.  Some bees sting, but not all. But all are pollinators.

I’m a teacher so here’s an educational example. If a classroom has 19 students and one teacher, there are 20 people in the classroom. In this analogy, the teacher is the keystone species. Although the teacher is only 1/20th of the class population, if the teacher leaves, everything stops. In contrast, if a student leaves, the class would easily continue with the teacher teaching the other 18 students.  The teacher is crucial to the health and productivity of the classroom.

Likewise, sea otters are a keystone species off the central coast of California.  Sea otters have a voracious appetite and one of their favorite foods is sea urchin. Sea urchins feed on the kelp that grows in a forest-like way along the central coast. If sea otters were removed from the central coast, the sea urchin population, without a significant predator, would overpopulate and eat through the kelp forest removing an important source of food, shelter, nursery habitat, and hunting grounds. Sea otters maintain the balance between animals and plants in the kelp forests.

Photo Credit: NOAA climate.gov

Photo Credit: Oreilleverte.com

The African savanna elephant is a keystone animal in eastern and southern Africa.  The elephant consumes as much as 300 pounds of vegetation each day. While eating these vast amounts of plants, trees and shrubs each day, the elephant is keeping the savanna from converting to forest and helping to maintain the grasslands. This in turn provides the vegetation needed for herbivores such as zebras and antelopes that are a key food source for lions and hyenas. Elephant dung also contributes to the important task of seed dispersal.

As a keystone species, bees are equally vital to the health of their local ecosystems. Along with other pollinators, such as hummingbirds, bees support the reproduction of as much as 90 percent of the world’s flowering plants. When bees fly from flower to flower to eat, they also transfer pollen between flowering plants. Some plants, like wheat, transfer pollen by wind, but other plants need pollinators like bees to physically move the pollen from flower to flower. Bees help to pollinate fruits, vegetables, and other crops that provide people with clothing and fuel. They also help to produce the fruit, berries, nuts and seeds that feed countless other animals all around the world.  Without bees, there would be a domino effect of negative consequences within ecosystems.

Declining Bee Populations is a Worldwide Concern

From April, 2019 to April, 2020 beekeepers in the United States lost an estimated 43% of their honey bee colonies due to climate change, pesticide use, habitat loss and harmful parasites like mites. beeinformed.org  A significant contributor to this devastating loss of the bee population is the use of neonicotinoid pesticides by agriculture. Neonicotinoids (commonly called Neonics) remain in the environment for years and can continue to harm or kill beneficial insects long after they’ve been applied.

In 1985, Bayer patented imidacloprid as the first commercial neonicotinoid and it became widely used during 1990’s. In the early 2000s, two other neonicotinoids, clothianidin and thiamethoxam, began being used. As of 2013, virtually all corn planted in the United States was treated with one of these two insecticides. As of 2014, about a third of US soybean acreage was planted with neonicotinoid-treated seeds. When farmers use neonicotinoids on their crops, the pesticides can leech into water supplies, which then get absorbed by flowers that serve as vital food sources for bees.

In 2019 the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a ban on 12 neonics, while continuing to allow the use of 47 other neonics.  In August, 2020, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the Trump administration had rolled back an Obama-era ban on neonicotinoids on refuge land.  The Trump administration reversed the rule that prohibited the use of these pesticides in several national wildlife refuges where farming is permitted.

Europe, however, severely restricted the use of plant protection products and treated seeds containing clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam to protect honeybees in 2013 and has continued to restrict their outdoor use ever since.  Likewise, Health Canada is cancelling many uses of neonicotinoids on crops that bees find attractive, such as orchard trees, and is not allowing spraying of some crops, such as berries and fruiting vegetables, before or during bloom. Although Canada does not have a complete ban, there are many government studies in progress which will determine the future of neonicotinoids in Canada.

Regions of China discovered exactly what happens when bee populations aren’t prioritized.  Years ago, China went on a campaign to eliminate identified pests and began using high amounts of insecticides. These poisons, however, didn’t just kill the ‘bad’ or ‘targeted’ insects and several regions in China also inadvertently killed all their bees and other pollinators leaving nothing left in nature to pollinate the crops. As a consequence, in Hanyuan County, in the Sichuan province, the farmers are now having to pollinate each pear blossom painstakingly by hand in order to produce a full crop of fruit each year.

Two years ago I saw this meme, and although it made me laugh,

I also stopped and realized how amazingly true it is.

We really need to start taking care of our bees.

Although the meme offers some humorous solutions,

here are real-life ways to help the bees in your area.

  1. VOTE!  Without leaders that value and respect science and the environment, the bees will never survive. Vote for government leaders that commit to passing legislation that will protect pollinators.

2.  Do not use any pesticides, fungicides or herbicides on plants in your garden. Make sure the plants you buy are not pre-treated with neonics pesticides. Using these products in your garden is a death warrant for pollinators.

3. Plant bee friendly flowers such as roses, lavender and sunflowers.  Avoid planting lawns in favor of wild flower fields.  When you plant flowers or trees that blossom, you are providing pollinators with a food source—you are feeding the bees.

4.  Buy local and raw honey to support your local bee keepers and their hives.

5.  Buy organic produce at your local farmers market.  The organic produce at the farmers market was grown locally and these farmers didn’t use pesticides, thereby helping to support the local bee population.

6.  If you live in a place that is often hot and dry, provide a water source for local birds and bees to drink water.  Bees can’t swim, so put stones or float corks in the water to provide a safe landing spot from which to drink.

7. Educate yourself and your children about the importance of bees. Children are not born afraid of bees, they are taught to be afraid.  Raise a generation that respects bees rather than fear them.

8.  If bees swarm in your yard, they are simply resting—no need to panic or kill them!  In the process of forming new hives, bees are on the move. Occasionally they need to stop and rest. I once had a swarm gather in my garden around a tree trunk the day before a garden Easter party! Talk about timing!  I decided to leave them alone and just let my guests know to avoid that section of the garden. But the next morning when I went to check on them, they were gone.  If you have a swarm stop in your yard, provide them with sanctuary until they are ready to move on.  If you discover a bee hive in an inconvenient location, call your local beekeepers association and they will gladly come and move it for you.

9.  Create shelter for solo bees. As their name implies, solo bees don’t live in colonies or hives.  Solo bees lay their eggs in tunnels, leave pollen for the larvae to eat, and a year later the bees emerge. Typically, native bees use abandoned beetle holes or cavities to nest, but with habitat loss and pesticide use they are struggling to find safe shelter.  The SoloBee Native Bee Shelter mimics nature and provides a safe nesting site for a female native bee.

My sister has been planting flowers for the bees for years and recently introduced me to this San Diego company. I love that they are building their bee shelters using discarded wood from a local guitar manufacturer! Such a great business model!

Another fun thing they offer is a map which shows where all registered SoloBee shelters are located around the world. Each shelter sold is numbered. Register your shelter with the company and they add you to the map. Check it out here.  My sister is on the map!

10.  Support organizations that are working around the world to support bees and other pollinators.

Here are two nonprofits with a worldwide influence.  

The World Bee Project based out of Reading, England

Pollinator.org is based out of San Francisco, CA, USA

But remember, these organizations can’t reach their potential unless you vote for candidates committed to preserving pollinators around the world.

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