The Importance of Bees as Pollinators

We all know that bees are an important part of our environment, but what makes them essential pollinators? And what about native bees, how can we help them to thrive also?

Globally there are 8 species of honey bees, each locally adapted to unique regions of the world. Honey bees are social insects that live in large family units and work together as superorganisms with many thousands of individuals. Honey bees, of course, produce honey as their name suggests. This is collected as nectar from flowering plants and brought back to the hive as food to feed their young and fuel their busy daily work.

A by-product of collecting nectar is the collection of pollen through static electricity to bees' furry bodies. As the bee travels to collect more nectar from another flower, she deposits pollen granules onto new plants, and this transfer allows the flower to be fertilized. Excess pollen is brought back to their hive and provides an important source of fat and protein for baby bees to grow.

This cross pollination allows the plants to produce seed and fruit in a beautiful symbiotic relationship that benefits both the flower and the bee! Bees and flowering plants have been evolving together for over 100 million years, much, much longer than our own human evolution of roughly 6 million years. Pollination remains one of the most important biological processes on our planet.

By far the most well-known species of honey bee is Apis mellifera, or the European honey bee, which is native to parts of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, and has been brought around the globe over the last few centuries to serve as the world’s most important agricultural pollinator and honey producer. The reason European honey bees are such fantastic pollinators is that they are exceptionally loyal to a plant species and will recruit other bees in the hive to collectively pollinate a single tree before moving on. They have powerful memories to navigate their surroundings and intricate systems to communicate with one another. This is the species that is responsible for pollinating 1/3 of all the food we eat globally and producing most of the world’s honey that we enjoy. Today there are over 80 million Apis mellifera hives worldwide.

But the story of bees does not end there! There are over 20,000 native bee species globally, each unique in shape, color, behavior, habitat, and family structure. Some are smaller than a grain of rice, some make homes out of leaves and mud, some are bright blue! The diversity and curiosity of this family of native bees is truly mind boggling. New native bee species are being named to science regularly, as we learn more about the world’s delicate native ecosystems and the important role native bees play in these environments. These highly specialized insects are closely evolved to pollinate native flowering plants and play a critical role in pollinating our native ecosystems globally. Bees are truly an indicator species for a healthy landscape and an intact environment.

About 75% of global plant species require an insect- mostly a variety of bees- to move their pollen from one plant to another to effect pollination and many farmers rely on a diversity of bees to pollinate their produce. Incredibly, natural pollination by the right type of bee improves the quality of the crop, from its nutritional value to its shelf life! The global economic value of pollination by these diverse insects is between $235 and 577 billion dollars USD annually.

Many native bees live and operate very differently to their honey bee counterparts. They are often solitary bees that live in small family units of a few dozen individuals, most do not produce honey, and many do not sting. Many native bees are pollen specialists meaning that they only use pollen from one species or genus of plants, so if that plant or habitat is no longer available in the environment, that bee is threatened, and if the plant is not pollinated then that plant species is also threatened. These relationships illustrate how delicate the links and connections of native ecosystems truly are and how important it is to conserve and protect both the insect pollinators and the larger plant habitat that they visit.

Unfortunately, native bees are understudied and under-protected overall and like their honey bee counterparts, are also under threat from loss of habitat and diverse forage (food) sources, harmful pesticide use, parasites & diseases, and the effects of climate change.

The good thing is that slowly the world is waking up to the importance of these small but mighty creatures. We all have a deeply personal reason to care about and help protect bees: we eat food! It is a misnomer that we would not survive without bees, we would still have wind and water pollinated food crops like corn and wheat, but these are largely foods lacking in important vitamins, minerals, and vibrant colors. Without bees we would not have most fruits, vegetables, and nut crops, staple favorites like coffee & chocolate, and would also miss cotton to make our clothing, and alfalfa and clover to raise our dairy and meat.