ARCHIVE: Why Busy Bees Need Us to Lend a Hand

This is originally from May 2014, but still relevant in regards to bee populations. 

Woo we made it, it’s finally summer! The season of abundant sunshine, laid back days, evenings of possibilities and of course picnics and barbecues! With the opportunity to eat outside come a few obstacles that not many of us like to deal with, bees. These uninvited guests always seem to crash the meal and leave us batting them always instead of enjoying our company and food. Wouldn’t it be great if they just disappeared? This way we could enjoy our time outside without fear of being stung or the needing to protect our food. Here’s the thing though, without bees we wouldn’t be able to enjoy most of the food we eat or the parts of summer that we all look forward to the most.

Bees act in a niche role in ecosystems around the world. According to an Ecowatch article written in 2013, they found that Honey Bees, both wild and those live on bee farms, conduct over 80% of the pollination worldwide. To put that in perspective, about 50,000 bees, the size of a typical colony, pollinate over 300 million flowers in one day. Along with flowers, bees pollinate many of the foods we like to eat in the summer. The nuts in your trail mix you eat on your hike, pollinated by bees. The fruits found in your smoothie for breakfast, also pollinated by bees. The vegetables you eat in your salad or put on your burger, the lettuce, tomatoes and onions, all pollinated by bees. Bees are also responsible for bringing us the beauty of chocolate and coffee — all hale bees right!?

The Honey Bee is one of many species of Bees. Some of the delicious foods that they pollinate and we enjoy are apples, melons, cranberries and broccoli. 

Just for a quick refresher, pollination occurs when the bee lands on the flowers of plants and transfers pollen from the male part of the plant, called the anther, to the female part of another plant, the stigma (anyone else having middle school lesson flashbacks?). This process works best when done naturally, not by humans, and allows for fertilization and reproduction of those plants. So why does this matter? The fertilization of all these plants keeps ecosystems healthy by keeping diversity in the plants and animals that live there. When bees pollinate a plant it allows that plant to reproduce which means that animals and people alike can eat and enjoy it. The more plants in an area the more stable and better off the ecosystem.

Nature’s system works well when all the wheels and cogs and turning properly, but since World War II bee populations are declining. On a Ted Talk about “Why bees are disappearing” by Marla Spivak, her research found that due to an abundance of pesticide use, mostly fertilizers, the health of bees have drastically declined. When the bees go to pollinate the flower, they absorb not only the pollen but also the chemicals, which infects and disorients them. This results in an inability for them to find their way back to the colony and usually die soon after. Spivak’s findings about pesticides are echoed by the rest of the science community as the use of pesticides as well as climate change, droughts, habitat loss and air pollution are also contributing to the loss in bee populations.

Numbers show that in the United States between 1947 and 2008, bee populations declined by 60%. While this is significant, bees have the ability to rebound and gain their abundance again. Simply by using fewer pesticides and fertilizers, or none at all – the majority of yards do not need added fertilizer – existing bees will not become infected and colonies will be able to grow. Also, by planting flowers that are native to your area, bees will come back and pollinate more plants. If you’re a gardener this will benefit your harvest because bee pollination studies in gardens done by Spivak show that with bees tomatoes and other vegetables turn out bigger and better than without. If you’re interested, there are beekeepers that live all across America and are always passionate people interested in the protection of bees. They would be great resources to talk to about the issue as well.

The next time a bee stations itself at your picnic, remember that they’re just checking in. Making sure that their pollination job did the trick and want to make sure it’s up to their standards while you enjoy it. Happy grilling and have a great holiday weekend!

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