Honey bees, although one of the most popular bees, represent only a small percent of bee species. Honey bees are the only surviving group of bees from the Apini tribe, which is under the Apisgenus. They are known for producing and storing honey, or liquefied sugar, as well as building impressively large nests using wax secreted by workers in a particular colony. A honey bee (or honeybee) is any member of the genus Apis, primarily distinguished by the production and storage of honey and the construction of perennial, colonial nests from wax. Currently, only seven species of honey bee are recognized, with a total of 44 subspecies.
Bees and humans have been through a lot together and people began keeping bees as early as 20,000 BC. They are most visible in summer and late spring, when new queens leave their old colonies along with thousands of workers to build new nests. At this time, large groups of bees can be seen swarming together to find a new nesting place. It takes a swarm approximately 24 hours to locate a new nesting site. While most swarms are harmless, certain species of bees are extremely aggressive and may attack unprovoked. Because honey bees are found worldwide, their nature and behavior can vary. For millions of years honey bees have been major pollinators of flowers and, therefore, the plants producing the flowers have relied on the bees. The goal of the plant is reproduction. The bees help accomplish this by unwittingly transferring pollen, from one flower to another. Without pollination, many plants would not be able to procreate and eventually would die out.
Albert Einstein is sometimes quoted as saying, “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.” It’s highly unlikely that Einstein said that. For one thing, there’s no evidence of him saying it. For another, the statement is hyperbolic and wrong (and Einstein was rarely wrong). But there is a kernel of truth in the famous misquote.
Humans benefit from this relationship though crop and honey production. Many of the crops people consume are pollinated by honey bees. Many growers maintain honey bee colonies for this very reason. Without pollination, the plants would not produce fruits and vegetables. Besides pollination, honey bees extract nectar along with the pollen from the flowers. The nectar is transported back to the nest where, through a process, it is converted into honey. There are an estimated 20,000 species of bees on the planet. It’s as far a stretch of the imagination to say that we could wipe them all out as it is to say that humanity would last 4 years without them.
That being said, there are certainly various factors that are causing a pollinator decline in many countries such as:
- Habitat loss.
- Overuse of pesticide. Neonics are getting more coverage now because of disastrous results on honey bees and bumble bees, both very important pollinating insects, but we use way too many pesticides in general. People often think that the term “organic”=no pesticide, but that isn’t true. Aside from the fact that you can slap an “organic” label on anything, there are organic pesticides!
- If you combine the above two points, that’s mono-crop agriculture for you: bees and other pollinators would of course prefer a variety of wild flowers, and we’re still replacing a lot of that rich landscape with single crops that are laden with pesticide.
- Commercial pollination acting as vectors for diseases (parasites or microbial) to local species. Apis meliferra caused a nearly 90% decline in local honey bee populations, when its gain in popularity in the 90s also introduced the Thai sac brood virus to the Indian sub-continent. Populations of indigenous honey bees have since recovered, but this recipe for disaster is prevalent. It’s not just honey bees that are used commercially; bumble bees and mason bees are sold by companies that specialize in rearing pollinators and selling them to farmers. This is huge business, believe it or not. The bees aren’t sold for honey they’re sold for assistance in pollination.
People are oblivious about the fact that we even need insects to pollinate so many plants, so the continuous pings in the press help somewhat in educating the masses. Bees are specialist pollinators, and the extinction of any species will have a detrimental effect on ecology in general.