By Avery Roe
Happy World Bee Day! I love bees, and I hope you do too! If you don't, you should… read this blog post to find out why. First of all, they are sweet, fuzzy, and most of them don't sting. But much more importantly, our very existence depends on them. Bees are our most important pollinators and the successful functioning of almost every ecological system depends on them. However, bees of all shapes and sizes are under threat from every angle. So join me, an entomology major and bee enthusiast, to discuss the buzz around World Bee Day and how we can support our beloved pollinators.
Bees play an essential ecological role, serving as pollinators. They bring us fruits and flowers, nuts and nutrition in the many forms of bee pollinated foods we rely on; About a third of our diet comes from bee pollinated produce. Even the dairy and meat industry is made possible by the pollination of alfalfa and clover used for cattle feed. Most of this work is done by the Western Honey Bee, Apis mellifer, which is
used commercially for agriculture and found throughout the world. These are the bees you probably think of when you hear the term “save the bees.” They have yellow and black stripes, are about the size of a lima bean, and can sting when threatened, which is how you might know them best.
Honey bees were domesticated for honey production centuries ago, and kept globally as agricultural pollinators. Commercial beehives are loaded onto trucks and driven around the country following seasonal crop blooms; Every February millions of bees are transported from Florida to California for the seasonal
almond bloom. Stressors like constant transport, pesticide exposure, poor nutrition, overcrowding, parasite infestation, and disease have weakened honey bee immune systems, which threatens global food production.
The phrase “Save the Bees” generated a large following in 2015, when colony collapse disorder, a term used to summarize the combined effects of honey bee stressors, resulted in an over 40% decrease in honey bee populations worldwide. This is a shocking statistic and beekeepers and bee researchers around
the nation rallied to the call for honey bee support. However, did you know there are over 20,000 other described species of bees, many of which are threatened to a higher degree than the honey bee? Perhaps, not as recognizable, or economically valued, these bees need our help too.
If you think a honey bee is cute, prepare to be amazed at the spectacular diversity of shapes, colors, behaviors, and personalities of our native bees. Just walking around my college campus I’ve seen leafcutter bees who carry pollen on their bellies, huge fuzzy bumble bees that get so laden with pollen they can't help but crash land, and orchid bees who sparkle like blue and green gems in the sun. Native bee diversity is unbelievable, and reflected in the wide range of flowering plants they have coevolved with. Yet, the consequences of our agricultural pesticide usage, as well as loss of habitat, lack of floral resources and disease threaten them just like they do Western Honey Bees.
In recent years the scientific community has begun to recognize the threat to native bee populations globally, and it's time the public does too. It is estimated that over 40% of native bee species are under threat of extinction. This news is devastating on multiple fronts; bees facilitate life as we know it through pollination, act as a foundational level of many food chains, and, like every living creature, have an inherent right to exist and flourish. The World Bee Day website has made an active effort to shift its focus to include all pollinators, one of many steps on the path towards expanding public appreciation for all of our bees.
It’s very clear the bees need our help. So, what's the solution? Well, the best thing to do would be to change the way we produce food on a global scale. Instead of growing one crop at a time for dozens of square miles, we should incorporate diversity into our agricultural fields. We should limit chemical usage by using biological predators and parasitoids for pest control. We should grow crops locally and in season, letting healthy ecosystems do the work of fertilizers. We should welcome native pollinators back into our food production systems, and reduce the burden on Western honey bees.
Unfortunately, descaling and rebuilding our agricultural infrastructure like that will take generations and you and I are not the ones setting agricultural policy. Beyond advocating for large-scale change in agricultural production, there are many individual actions each of us can take to begin the process. Here are some ideas:
Plant a pollinator garden! The key to a great pollinator garden is biodiversity, especially if it is native to your area. Having several groups of flowering plants that bloom at different times throughout the year will certainly attract a lot of pollinators. Incorporating some tomatoes, berry bushes or even fruiting trees might also cut down on your grocery bill (and your support for industrial agriculture). Don't use toxic chemicals in your garden, or any pesticides! This is a great resource for anyone looking for tips on starting a pollinator garden or lists of species native to their area https://www.pollinator.org/guides.
Shop locally. Buying produce from local farmers is a fantastic way to support native bee populations and boycott industrial agriculture. Talk to growers about their practices; Are they growing organic? Do they keep honey bees? Do they grow their crops in monoculture? How are they supporting native bees? While you're at your local farmers market, see who's selling honey. Local honey produced by bees in your area is packed with health benefits, and can really help with seasonal allergies (this is because it is made from the same pollen that makes you sneeze and will build your body's immunity before allergy season begins).
Contribute to citizen science through observation. Paying attention to the natural world around you and communicating your findings to the scientific community will help inform entomologists and scientists of distribution changes, and may have important implications for conservation. iNaturalist is a great place to start. This app lets you upload a photo of any observation (insects, animal or plant) to a global database of species diversity. Your photo will be verified by entomologists and experts and might be used in a scientific study! There are many other citizen science projects centered around specific pollinator groups run by the Xerces Society, check them out! https://xerces.org/community-science
Go out and learn more. Taking the time to appreciate our bees and telling everyone you know to do the same will have an impact. The things harming the bees also harm our environment and us, and everyone should know. Small actions can do big things, as is the #UNLITTER motto, so every bit of progress bodes well for us and our bees.
Hopefully you have learned a bit about the Western honey bee and the threats it faces and native bees and their multifaceted importance, and are empowered to do your part in saving the bees. Now its your turn to spread the word. Advocate for our bees to everyone you know and take the time to show them your appreciation. If we work together to support our pollinators, and prove that non-industrial agriculture is possible, we will see cascading benefits, not only for our bees, but for our economy, our communities, and our planet. Happy World Bee Day!