Do Honey Bees Pollinate?

Last Updated: 18.11.19

 

First introduced in North America in the 1600s, honey bees play a crucial role in pollinating large crops, and you can find out more info here on how to keep them. However, these are not the only insects and pollinators that need protection, as focusing only on their needs can lead to many local ecosystem-related issues. 

Before going into details about honey bees, let’s first take a look at what pollination means since it’s a process that has a tremendous impact on worldwide agricultural processes. Pollination stands for the transfer of pollen that contains the male gametes of a plant to the receptive stigma, which is the female part of this process. 

This can take place either on the same plant or from one to the other, within the same species. The result is fertilization, which means that plants sexually reproduce to produce seeds. Pollination can be done by the wind as well, as many examples show us. Conifers, grasses, and even some types of trees are pollinated by wind today. 

However, the truth is that most flowering plants use living organisms to do this transfer. While some might think that only bees are responsible for pollination, in fact, there are many other types of creatures that actively participate in it. The list includes wasps, beetles, flies, ants, butterflies, and even birds and bats in some situations. Insects do have the main role though. 

When it comes to cultivated crops, it’s estimated that around 80% of all pollination is done by honey bees. Many of the fruits and vegetables that we eat would not be available in stores without help from the insects, and the same goes for other important crops such as herbs, nuts, spices, or oilseed ones.

Moreover, even plants that are not specially grown for their fruits do require pollination in order to be able to multiply and propagate by seed. Of course, pollination plays a major role from an economic point of view as well, given that honey bees alone are responsible for adding an estimated $15 billion to the country’s economy each year thanks to increased crop yields. 

 

A bit of history 

You may not know this, but honey bees were brought to North America sometime in the 1600s by colonists. Many of them escaped into the wild at the time, which then led to an estimated 4,000 native bee species being displaced, and the honey bees continued to pollinate the developing agricultural industry throughout the 20th century. 

In the 1990s there two species of parasitic mites that were accidentally introduced to the United States from Asia. Known as the Varroa mite and the tracheal mite, these two went on to cause severe declines in the honey bee population in a relatively short amount of time. Further on, these were controlled using chemical pesticides which substantially increased costs. 

Around the same time, feral honey bees populations went through a dramatic decline which, combined with increased agricultural production, led to finding another solution, namely contracted pollination services. This means that honey bee hives were placed on trucks each spring and moved around to different areas of agricultural production to pollinate crops that were in bloom. 

On the other hand, some experts think that this practice led to the spread of various honey bee diseases, as well as other hive pests. The fact remains that many of the crops we are using today would not be able to exist without honey bees to ensure pollination at bloom time. Some of these crops are 90% dependent on this process, with some being entirely so. 

Today, American farmers are able to feed more people using less land, and the food is safe, but honey bees are a crucial part of this story, so they need to be paid attention to. The estimated number of bee colonies in the U.S. today is of around 2.7 million, and two-thirds of these travel the country in order to pollinate crops, as well as to produce honey and beeswax. 

However, the need might be greater than this, given that almond orchards alone, a crop that is entirely dependant on the pollination process, require approximately 1.8 million colonies to be able to adequately cover the nearly 1 million acres planted around the country. 

 

 

Are honey bees everything? 

While it’s true that honey bees play a crucial role within the agricultural system, especially since large crops need to be sustained for us to benefit from fruits and many other nutritional types of food, these are not the only pollinators we should be paying attention to. In fact, according to some experts, those who are worried about these insects often cannot see the larger picture. 

There are many other pollinators in nature that need to be protected as well, including bats, butterflies, flies, hummingbirds, as well as other bee species. Being focused solely on honey bees means that thousands of other pollinators are overshadowed, but these are equally important for a balanced ecosystem. 

Our impact from an environmental point of view means that many insect species are still wiped out, and this impact is soon going to be noticeable beyond our meals. While the public attention is focused on honey bees, other more vulnerable species are left suffering without too much help. 

Human activity means that entire areas that insects use to hide, nest, and forage are being cleaned and turned into something else, which leads to the extinction of numerous species that no longer have a place to live. Moreover, while we are focusing on honey bees, we tend to forget that there are more than 20,000 species of bees. 

Their colors range from red and black to metallic blue-green, some being solitary instead of hive-dwellers, and occupying a wide range of spaces, including dirt or wood. As for those that produce honey, there are only 7 species in this category. 

 

Bumblebees

As we’ve already mentioned, there are many other pollinating insects we should turn our attention to. Bumblebees, for example, are experiencing severe die-offs, as this goes up to 96% of the population in some cases. Some species are considered extinct in North America, while others are not doing so great. 

Everyone should be aware that bumblebees are particularly important pollinators given their size and fuzziness. Some of them have also developed special relationships with some types of flowering plants. For example, tomatoes rely on buzz pollination, a process that is ensured only by certain types of bees. 

This means that when a bumblebee is around the flower and bites it, this is followed by a vibration used to shake out the pollen. Farmers and gardeners found a way to work around this by using electric toothbrushes to trick the plants into thinking they are pollinated by the right bees. Some countries, such as the U.K. import non-native bumblebees each year. 

Some of these escape, which means that there’s a higher risk to spread diseases to other local pollinators. In the United States, beekeepers use billions of bees in California, a state known for its large almond crops that could not produce the much-desired fruits without help from these pollinators. 

 

 

Risks when focusing solely on honey bees 

By shuffling honey bees and bumblebees around the world, there is a very high chance to introduce diseases in new locations and thus damage local ecosystems even more. That’s why, before buying a beehive and starting your own adventure to protect the environment and sustain the pollination process, research the matter and see what’s locally needed. 

There’s another reason why focusing on honey bees might not be the best idea, namely that they are not always the most effective choice compared to other pollinators. In fact, honey bees can oftentimes be less efficient, but they can spread diseases to other types of insects. 

This usually becomes a problem when people form colonies of their own without taking into consideration the local species and their needs. While owning beehives can be a great and rewarding hobby, it’s very important to know what you are doing. Newly introduced bees should not compete with local species or endanger them. 

Given the pollination needs that are increasing around the world, some people have even started doing it by hand or with mechanical tools. However, we need to be aware that we will never be able to pollinate the entire planet by hand, so we need to take care of every type of insect that gets the job done, not only honey bees. 

It’s true that they are very important as well, but pesticides and chemicals are endangering a lot more types of pollinators than we can imagine. 

 

 

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