What is Pollination? Why Bees Are So Important To Us
Bees, they’re everywhere.
Buzzing around your house, landing on your ice cream and mistaking you flowers. Hate them or love them, bees are an important part of our ecosystem. Not only do they play an important role in pollinating plants, but they are also one of the many wonders of the world.
Their teamwork and ability to work together to produce honey has amazed scientists for years, but now they are being researched for a different reason. Over the past few decades the number of bees, especially the honey bee has been on the decline.
Understanding what bees do and why they are important in this world is crucial if we want to save them. Considering the majority of what we eat is pollinated by bees, it’s vital we do everything we can to help them survive. Without bees, you can wave bye bye to all those delicious fruits and nuts you eat.
So what is pollination and what have bees got to do with it?
What Is Pollination?
According to the 1976 Pollination Handbook, one-third of our total diet is dependent upon insect pollinated plants. In fact, pollination alone is responsible for 70% of the fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts we consume. A large majority of crops grown for their fruits require pollination by insects.
Pollination is the process of transferring pollen from the male parts of a flower to the female part. This results in the fertilization of plant ovaries and thus the production of seeds. As simple as it may sound, this process is crucial in maintaining natural plant communities by ensuring the production of seeds.
As you’ve probably guessed, the main insect pollinator by far, is bees. While some species such as the Honeybee are considered the most active, other species still contribute to the pollination process. Aside from bees, there are other animals that contribute such as bats, hummingbirds, butterflies and moths.
To summarize what pollination means:
Although all of these animals contribute to pollination, none do it as good as bees. But why?
Why Are Bees Good Pollinators?
Unlike other animals, bees spend most of their lives collecting pollen in order to feed their offspring. This makes them excellent pollinators as other pollinators such as hummingbirds only collect nectar for themselves. Some bees collect both nectar and pollen when landing on a flower which increases the chances of pollination.
During the collection of nectar, when a bee lands on a flower the hairs on the bee’s body attracts pollen through electrostatic forces. Hairs on the bee’s body allow them to store the pollen in their “pockets” and then carry it back to their nest.
Another important reason why bees make good pollinators is that they tend to focus on one kind of flower at a time. This means they are more likely to carry pollen from one flower to the same flower species. Since many plants require pollen from the male part in order to produce seeds, this greatly increases the chances of pollination.
Where Do Bees Live?
Depending on the species of the bee that are several places where they are likely to start a nest. Some bee species dig nests underground in soil while others (Carpenter bees) prefer nesting in dead wood and bamboo.
Bumblebees are commonly known to nest in abandoned rodent burrows. Feral honey bees, on the other hand, are known to nest in hollow trees. When creating their nest’s bees use a range of different materials to build them. A lot of bees will line their nest with a waxy material they produce themselves. Others will use leaves, small pebbles, tree sap and mud to build an area where they can lay eggs.
So What Happens If All The Bees Die?
Nothing good. Sure some plants would naturally pollinate themselves due to other animals and the wind, but overall it would be bad news. There are plenty of plants out there that specifically require bees in order to pollinate them. Without bees, they won’t get fertilized and they won’t produce seeds. Not only does this mean they’ll have a hard time reproducing, but it also means less food for us.
Known as colony collapse disorder, certain species of bees have been on the decline for many decades. Since 2006 there has been a decrease in 40% of commercial honeybees in the US and a 45% decrease of the honeybee in the UK. If we don’t do anything about it these figures are only going to keep increasing.
Here’s a quick video explaining what would happen if all the bees died.
The Different Types of Bees
Since there are around 20,000 known species of bees out there, it’s worthwhile learning some of the common types of bees.
The most recognizable bee by far is most definitely the Bumblebee. With its distinctive yellow on black stripes, the chances are you’ve had an encounter with one of these in your life. Currently there are over 250 species of known Bumblebee each with their own unique personalities and features.
Similar to their relatives the Honey Bee, Bumblebees feed on nectar using their long and hair tongues. They use this nectar to add to the stores in their nest and feed pollen to their young.
Often mistaken as Bumblebees, Carpenter bees differ from traditional bees in how they nest. Nearly all 500 species of the Carpenter bee burrow into hard plant material such as dead wood and bamboo. Some rare exceptions are that they nesting tunnels in suitable soil.
Many non-professional often confuse Carpenter Bees with Bumblebees. Most Carpenter bees have a shiny abdomen whereas Bumblebees are covered with dense hair. Due to their short mouthparts, Carpenter bees are important pollinators on some open-faced and shallow flowers. In fact, some plants specifically reply on Carpenter bees to pollinate them.
The second most recognizable bee out there is the Honey bee. Often confused with Wasps due to their similar colours and shape, there are clear difference between the two. Wasps are naturally a lot more aggressive and won’t hesitate to sting while Honeybees just want to get on with making that sweet honey.
Currently, there are only seven species of Honey bees out there, though up to eleven species have been recognized in the past. Honey bees only represent a small fraction of the 20,000 known bees out there. There are some bees that are related to the Honeybee that produce and store honey, but only members of the Apis genus are true honey bees.
One of the most annoying bees out there is the Sweat Bee or Halictidae. These bees are usually the same color as Honey Bees and Bumblebees but several species are partly green and red. Many of these bees are often attracted to perspiration, hence the name. If you’ve ever had a bee following you around in the summer, then the chances are it was a Sweat bee.
Despite the name and their behavior, some species of the Sweat Bee play an important role in the pollination of crops.
Help Save The Bees!
Over the last half century, bee communities have been declining due to the increased use of pesticides. These pesticides, known as “neonicotinoids“, are systemic meaning they don’t stay outside the plant when applied. Instead, they enter the plant’s vascular system and travel through it. The increase in the use of neonicotinoids means there is a greater chance for pollinators to be exposed to these chemicals.
Pollen collected from affected plants can often have high levels of pesticide residue in them. When consumed or taken back to their hive it can have disastrous effects. In fact, a combination of pesticides can completely change a bee’s behaviour leaving them confused and dysfunctional.
But that’s not the only thing affecting bees. Changes in certain lands have also resulted in the disruption of nests and nesting resources, making it harder for bees to find a home.
If you want more information on how bees are being affected then be sure to watch the interesting bee documentary The Vanishing of the Bees.
What You Can Do To Help
Today it’s more important than ever that you help save the bees by not using pesticides and destroying their homes. Sure bees can sometimes be annoying, but they’re only trying to do their job!
This helpful guide produced by the University of Michigan shows the plants for overlapping bloom and appeal to pollinators. If you’re planning on adding flowers to your garden to help the bees and other pollinators then it’s worth having a read.
For further information, we suggest watching this detailed webinar about smart gardening and what you can plant in your garden to help. Or heading over to the Greenpeace SOS Bee page which has plenty of interviews with farmers from around the world on how they are tackling the problem.