The Bees and The Bees

Honey Bee

Honey Bee

Although we see them all the time, it’s easy to take the honey bee for granted. We avoid them or shoo them away, but rarely do we take a moment to appreciate what the honey bee does for us.

The honey bee, apis melifera, is one of our most important partners in growing fruits, veegtables and nuts. According to the National Resources Defence Council, “the list of crops that simply won’t grow without honey bees is a long one: Apples, cucumbers, broccoli, onions, pumpkins, carrots, avocados, almonds … and it goes on.”

The San Diego Zoo website has a good explanation of bee pollination:

“Bees were very similar to carnivorous wasps millions of years ago. But when flowering plants appeared on Earth, bees became vegetarians, eating only nectar and pollen taken from flowers. Pollen is a well-balanced food with many of the essential nutrients bees need to survive. Female bees have a structure on their legs that no other insects, including wasps, have: a pollen basket. The basket is made of rows of stiff hairs that arch to form a hollow space on the outside of the bees’ legs, usually her back legs. When a bee visits a flower, she combs grains of pollen into her baskets. Pollen from the flower also sticks to the bee’s hair. Males do not collect pollen, so they don’t have this special body part. Leafcutting bees carry pollen in a brush of hair on the underside of the abdomen. And a few species, such as parasitic bees, have no pollen basket.

What about the flower’s nectar? Bees have a special tongue that sucks up the sweet nectar and a crop in their throat for storing it until they get back to the hive. Here the nectar is turned into honey. They can store large amounts of the honey in their hives to use as food.

All bees fly from flower to flower, sipping nectar and collecting grains of pollen. Many plants depend on bees to spread pollen, helping them to reproduce. Fruits and vegetables we like to eat, such as oranges, tomatoes, and squash, need bees to distribute the important pollen. When these crops are ready to produce their flowers, farmers often hire commerical beekeepers to deliver bees to their fields. The beekeeper places bee hives near the field for a few weeks. The bees harvest pollen and nectar for their hive, and the plants get pollinated in the process.”

Even in this age of big agribusiness, we still need and use bees to pollinate most of our vegetables. In the United States, there are large commercial bee-keepers. The National Honey Board reports that there are “approximately 1,600 commercial beekeeping operations in the United States which produce about 60 percent of the nation’s honey.  Many commercial beekeepers migrate their colonies during the year to provide pollination services to farmers and to reach the most abundant sources of nectar. ”

Commercial beekeepers truck their hives all over the United States and are paid top dollar for their bees’ pollination services. The almond harvest in California is perhaps the most impressive “bee operation.” The San Francisco Gate has a great story about how in February more than 40 billion bees are broughton semi trucks to the California Almond country.

In 2006, beekeepers began to report an alarming trend: the bees were disapearing. Unexplainably, masss of bee hives were empty and the bees were nowhere to be found.The phenomenon was termed Colony Collapse Disorder and it’s estimated that up to 1/3 of all honey bees in the United States have disapeared. What’s going on?

Watch these two 60 Minutes clips to get the latest thinking on what is happening. It’s so disturbing…

As of yet, there is no officially diagnosed cause of Colony Collapse Disorder. A lot of the papers and scientific research suggest that CCD could be caused by a confluence of different factors — articificial hives and breeding, chemicals that are used in beekeeping, chemicals and fertilizers that are used in agribusiness, and more.

For a full list of resources on Colony Collapse Disorder, see The MidAtlantic Apiculture website.

For a good explanation of the life of bees and of the functioning and social order of the hive, have a look at the National Honey Board website.

After learning about bees and their travails, I doubt I will ever look at them the same again.

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