Honeybees are essential for pollination. Unfortunately, they are also under threat.
According to a Sept. 2013 article in Scientific American, “American honeybee colonies are dying at an average rate of 30 percent every year.” Eight percent of this is due to the oft-discussed colony collapse disorder, but less fertile and shorter-lived queen bees are probably the cause of approximately 32 percent of colony collapses.
Their decline in health may be due to herbicides and fungicides, but more research is needed. One possible solution is to breed queen bees locally rather than mail-ordering them so they will be better suited to their local environments.
Pollination is necessary for the success of flowering plants. You cannot harvest apples if your apple tree has not been fertilized. The American Beekeeping Federation notes that blueberries and cherries are 90 percent dependent on honeybee pollination and almond trees are not pollinated in any other way. Declining bee populations is clearly problematic for agriculture and a healthy natural environment.
The role bees play in the pollination process is easy to describe and difficult to replace. As they move from one flower to another in search of nectar, pollen sticks to their hairy legs and underbellies and then spreads with them. Honeybees are particularly diligent pollinators. The National Honey Board states that 2 million flowers are “tapped” in the course of making a single pound of honey. In the U.S. alone, the average person eats 1.3 pounds of honey yearly. Consider that not all the honey made by bees is eaten by people (honey is their food, so they eat it too) and you may get an idea of how many flowers they fertilize.
We tend to take for granted that plants are pollinated without human assistance — that pollen somehow makes it from one flower to another — but it is not a given. Wind, hummingbirds and other insects help, but they are not enough to ensure that all the flowers have the pollen they need. And when people pollinate plants, it is labor intensive and expensive.
Next time you see a fruit tree in the springtime, try to count all the flowers you see. Then, if you think that was a slow and unrewarding activity, try to imagine using a brush to put pollen in one flower at a time. If you owned an orchard and had to pay people by the hour to complete the same task that bees do for free, getting the season started would be much more costly.
The role honeybees play in pollination is worth appreciating, and their populations should be protected from factors that would interfere with their health. Eating organic food (to decrease use of chemicals in the environment) and supporting bans on the synthetic herbicides and fungicides that weaken honeybee colonies are two ways to do our part.
Zach Wilson is a senior studying philosophy. Do you think bees are the bee’s knees? You can tell him at email@example.com.