Who are the most important workers in today's global economy? There are plenty of candidates, but one group usually gets overlooked despite its essential role in cultivating the world's food supply: Apis mellifera, better known as the honey bee. The earth has been hosting bees for over thirty million years, making their contributions well established in nature’s symbiotic circles of life. They pollinate at least a third of the food we eat, are highly structured, and absolutely indispensable to the world’s agriculture. Unfortunately, while they've been flying under people's radars, millions of worker bees have mysteriously gone missing. In fact, the number of bee colonies in the United States has dropped by 50 percent since 1979. Read below to get the latest facts about bees, where they could be going and why it's so important for humans to find out.
Honey Bee Facts
Honey bees group together in colonies that can contain upward of 40,000 bees. Their populations consist of a fertile female queen bee, a few fertile males and thousands of infertile female worker bees. The queen and the males spend most of their time reproducing while worker bees are responsible for all the grunt work, including building a hive out of beeswax, collecting pollen to feed the young and turning nectar into honey for the rest of the bees to feed off of. People have been keeping bee colonies to sell their excess honey since the beginning of recorded history, but bees have come to play an even more important role in human society over the past few centuries.
Bees and honey are certainly big business, but honey bees are also pivotal to growing agriculture in all parts of the planet. Farmers rent colonies from professional bee breeders to replenish their harvests every year. As the bees transfer pollen from plants to their hives, they drop grains that fertilize crops. Blueberries, watermelon, peaches, soy beans, broccoli, almonds, carrots and hundreds of other vegetables and fruits all depend on bees to reproduce at a rate fast enough to feed humans. As the number of bees has continued to dwindle, the cost of renting a colony has increased, consequently raising food prices as well.
Why the sudden decline in bee populations? Parasites such as mites(vampire mites more precisely) can quickly wreck havoc by spreading diseases across hives, but bugs alone cannot explain the drastic drop. Many bees have been simply leaving their homes and not returning, a phenomenon scientists have termed Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. Several culprits have been suggested for this trend, though more research needs to be done. Among the possibilities are climate change and the rising number of cell phone signals possibly throwing off the bees' migration patterns. Another possibility is malnutrition due to the rise of monocultures, or farms that plant only one type of crop. If bees don't have access to enough variety of plants to keep them nourished and happy, they may look elsewhere for food. Scientific research has confirmed that long term exposure to some pesticides, namely neonicotinoid and pyrethroid, can impair bees' foraging abilities, leaving them unable to navigate their environment and feed themselves.
More Fun Facts About Honey Bees
Aside from literally carrying the burden of pollinating the world's food supply on their backs, honey bees may have some untapped talents that could help humans. Portuguese designer Susana Soares developed a device to train bees how to sniff out cancer and other ailments. Many cancers and diseases such as tuberculosis slightly alter the odor of the patient's breath, so she trains bees to identify a particular scent by pumping different smells into a glass bowl and placing food in a receptacle when channeling in the desired scent to build an association. The next time a patient with cancer or another disease breaths into the bowl, the bees will rush to the receptacle, whether there is food present or not. Many illnesses are easier to treat when caught early, so these neat honey bee facts can potentially save lives.
Considering all that bees do for us, the least we can do is treat them with respect. If you're not up for becoming a beekeeper, planting flowers is an easy way to help wary worker bees keep up their energy. You can also donate a hive to local farmer or patronize a local beekeeper. Ensuring the safety of bees and their honey is ultimately an investment in our own survival, so become a bee advocate and spread the word!