When we have breakfast each day, we can thank honeybees for making our meal possible by pollinating the blueberries on our cereal, oranges for our juice, or almonds in our muffins.
Honeybees are powerhouse pollinators, the most important pollinators on the planet. In the United States, commercial beekeepers truck thousands of honeybee hives around the country to large-scale farms to pollinate 100 different crops. Apples, sunflowers (grown as a commercial crop for oil), carrots, broccoli, cantaloupes, cucumbers, and pumpkins are all reliant on honeybee pollination.
Honeybees are not the only pollinators. Other species of bees, such as bumblebees, carpenter bees, and mason bees, also pollinate. In fact, there are more different species of bees (19,200 species of bees so far identified of the estimated total of 40,000) than there are different species of all the mammals, lizards, frogs, and birds on earth put together. Butterflies, moths, beetles, birds, and bats are also pollinators, along with the bees.
Every third bite we eat is made possible by pollinators that transfer pollen from the male to female parts of flowers, so that the plants can form seeds and reproduce. About three-quarters of the world’s flowering plant species rely on pollinators, which are so critical to life on earth that ecologists refer to them as a “keystone” species, meaning that removing them would compromise the whole structure, similar to removing a keystone from a fireplace or stone wall.
The Perfect Partnership: Pollination
Bees, fascinating creatures in their own right, are workhorses of pollination and the most effective pollinators. Bumblebees and honeybees are social and live in large families. There are also bees known as “solitary bees,” making up 90 percent of the bee species. Solitary bees include mason bees, leafcutter bees, alkali bees, and digger bees or sweat bees. Rather than working in a colony, these bees live on their own. Female solitary bees build nests in the ground or in cracks found in walls or in wood, and gather nectar and pollen for their young, pollinating plants as they go.
Over 100 million years, bees evolved alongside flowering plants to what is now an ideal partnership. The bees seek out flowers for high-protein pollen and sweet nectar. As they do so, their bristled bodies pick up pollen from the flower’s male parts—stalks or filaments that hold aloft the pollen-producing anther and that are collectively known as the flower’s stamen. As the bees work, they transfer pollen to the female parts of the same flower or another flower. The female mechanism is called a pistil and consists of the stigma, which sits atop a style, or stalk, which leads to an ovary at its base. Pollen combines with eggs in the ovary to form seeds.
Bees have developed specialized parts of their own to harvest nectar and pollinate. Their proboscis is a long tongue, both slender and hairy, that operates like a straw to bring liquid food to their mouth. The bee’s mandibles, located on either side of its head, work like a pair of pliers and are used for chores like biting into flower parts to release pollen. The bee’s pollen basket is a smooth, somewhat concave surface on the bee’s outer hind leg fringed with curved hairs to hold the pollen in place. That’s where bees store pollen as they transport it back to the hive. Honeybees use sight to locate food sources. Honeybees’ eyes consist of 6,900 lenses covered with hairs to detect wind. They can differentiate among six major categories of color: yellow, blue-green, blue, violet, ultraviolet, and also a color known as “bee’s purple,” a mixture of yellow and ultraviolet. They can see blue-green, violet, and bee’s purple colors best. They can’t see red.
Additional information about the honeybee body is available from the University of Arizona’s Africanized Honey Bee Education Project.
The “waggle dance” is one of the most fascinating things about honeybees, and is considered by some to be one of the wonders of the natural world.
Within honeybee colonies, the female is the one that ventures out and forages for nectar and pollen. She’ll fly up to three miles away from the hive, and return to the same hive. When she finds an abundant source of pollen—which the bees need for protein—she’ll return and “waggle” to tell the other foraging females about it: which direction, how far, and even the quality of the food. The angle in which she moves indicates direction, a figure-eight dance indicates the food source is far away, and a vigorous shake speaks to the quality of the food.
The honeybee’s waggle dance is the only known symbolic language that exists among species other than humans and primates.
Honeybees, along with the rest of the bee species and pollinators like some butterflies, bats, and hummingbirds, are all declining in the face of industrialization and development. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation tracks the bee species facing the most trouble, such as the rusty-patched, western and yellow-banded bumblebees on its red list.
Honeybees, in particular, for the last four years have been disappearing owing to what’s called “colony collapse disorder.” They are not native to North America, but were imported from Europe during colonial times and more recently have been imported from Australia. These species are the ones most easily managed, and are trucked around the country for large-scale pollination, or otherwise kept by beekeepers. Some called “feral” are now also found in the wild. Honeybees have been declining in overall health since the 1980s, but began to vanish from their hives in huge numbers starting in the fall of 2006.
The United States has lost an estimated one-third of its honeybee hives, and scientists are hard at work looking for the root causes of colony collapse disorder. They suspect it is a combination of the effects of pesticides, diseases, parasites, and malnutrition. For the latest on colony collapse disorder, see the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service CCD page.
Planting for Pollinators
What we can do to help pollinators is provide habitat, by planting flowers they like and helping provide materials they need to make homes. To learn about planting a pollinator garden in your youth garden, see Alluring Pollinators.
The fear factor can be a challenge to encouraging bees in a school or youth garden. Many children are afraid of getting stung. But that’s unlikely. Most bees do not sting unprovoked. However, wasps, yellowjackets, male carpenter bees, and aggressive Africanized bees may sting, and wasps can sting repeatedly. Like bees, wasps are striped yellow and black, but they don’t have bristled bodies and their habits are different from those of bees. For example, wasps feed on insects whereas bees feed on nectar and pollen. So what you might see feeding on a flower is a bee. For more on wasps, see the Nuisance Wasps and Beesfact sheet from Colorado State University.
Teaching students to remain calm and not aggravate any bees they see will prevent most stings. To ensure safety in the event that a child, perhaps unknowingly, is allergic to bees and will have a life-threatening reaction to a sting, youth gardens should have an EpiPen or similar device on hand, easily accessible by adults who are comfortable using one.
For more on bee stings and safety, see the Agricultural Research Service'sStung by a Bee fact sheet. Stings are not likely, and fear shouldn’t keep children from learning about the fascinating lives of bees and the essential role they play in pollinating our food supply. Click here to learn how one environmental educator and beekeeper turns fear into fascination.
The Forgotten Pollinators, by Stephen L. Buchmann, Gary Paul Nabhan, and Paul Mirocha. Island Press, 1996.
The University of Arizona Africanized Honey Bee Education Project:http://ag.arizona.edu/pubs/insects/ahb/
Lisa Duchene is an environmental writer in Bellefonte, Pa., and co-coordinator of the Bellefonte Community Children’s Garden.