The 20th of May has been officially designated as World Bee Day by the United Nations. This date resonates in the world of bees because it was the birthday of Anton Janša, an 18th century Slovenian apiarist and the originator of modern beekeeping. The celebration is in an effort to raise awareness as to just how wonderful bees actually are in the grand scheme of things.
The movement to save the bees has made many of us much more aware of how important these little insects are to both the botanical world and the animal kingdom, humanity included. Bees play a vital role in the food system, and without them, we’d miss out on heaps of delicious fruit and vegetables, as would wild herbivores and omnivores that forage for their dinners, not to mention the carnivores that eat said herbivores and omnivores.
Bees, some 20,000 species of them worldwide, pollinate everything from apple trees to almonds to cucumbers to cotton to pigeon peas to persimmons to buckwheat to beans and so much in between. All that pollinating, of course, means we get to enjoy the fruits of their labour. Even better, bees also produce their delicious honey, beeswax, royal jelly and propolis that humans and other animals also enjoy.
Bees can either be domesticated, as in the western honey bees used for cross-country crop pollination, or wild, such as the carpenter bees infamous for burrowing their way into porch eaves and posts. Regardless, all bees are in a bad way these days due to agro-chemicals, mass agriculture, urbanisation, and climate change. Losing them would be detrimental to the planet, so we have to do what we can to prevent that from happening.
Social v Solitary Bees
When most of us picture bees, we envision “honey bees” and “bumblebees”, but there are actually only seven species of honey bee (Apis sp.) and less that 50 subspecies, and bumblebees (Bombus sp.) account for only about 250 species. Both of these types of bees are social bees. They live in hives that are run by queens, and each individual bee has a specific function within its community. These are also the bees that swarm and sometimes sting, usually doing so in effort to protect the hive. And, yes, their barbed stingers do get caught in the victim such that the bee sacrifices its life with this act.
Solitary bees, as their name suggests, live alone most of the time. These bees tend to lay eggs in tunnels, either in the ground or in wood. Each egg gets its own little chamber within the hole, and that chamber is stocked with pollen and nectar before being sealed with things like leaves, wax, or mud, depending on the type of solitary bee. The mother bee leaves the eggs behind, and the offspring survives on the food left for it. In the spring, the new adult emerges and repeats the cycle. Like social bees, solitary bees are capable of stinging, but they do so even less frequently.
Both social and solitary bees perform the crucial task of pollinating plants.
The Importance of Bees
While the honey bee and the beehive have been the cause for most of the recent spotlight on bees, the fact remains that honey bees constitute but a minuscule segment of the bee population. It just happens to be the one that humans have domesticated, originally for honey. While honey bees now pollinate some 80% of commercial crops, making them seemingly irreplaceable, that hasn’t always been the case.
In truth, bees, regardless of their honey production, are pollinators. Some are specialists, concentrating on specific fruits and flowers, such as the blueberry bee and the squash bee. Other bees, like sweat bees and leaf-cutter bees, are generalists and work on a variety of crops. Suffice it to say, whether they be social or solitary, bees pollinate our plants, so they are important to just about every creature on the planet.
Honey bees receive a lion’s share of the attention because they can be shipped around to pollinate. This makes them convenient for large mono-crop fields where they can be brought in en masse to pollinate then taken away. The native bees, however, require a true ecosystem. Unfortunately, current agricultural methodologies aren’t working for honey bees or native species, and that’s not going to work for those of us who like a variety fruits, veggies, and grains.
The Hive of Social Bees
Social bees live in hives (man-made constructs) or nests (bee-made constructs). Beehives are as valued for the pollination as they are for the honey produced, and nowadays they are trucked thousands of miles, to and fro, to pollinate crops at just the right time: February almonds in California, March citrus in Florida, April apples in New York, May blueberries in Maine, June pumpkins in Pennsylvania, etc.
The social system within a hive (or nest) is fascinating:
- Each hive has a queen who is responsible for laying all of the eggs for the next generation. In order to gain the throne, the queen’s larva is specially selected by worker bees, which feed the presumptive queen royal jelly so she’ll mature sexually, and upon maturity, she will have to destroy all potential rivals in the nest.
- Worker bees are females, and they are the buzz of the hive. They gather nectar, feed everyone, preserve honey, build honeycomb, collect water, clean the hive, guard the hive, fan the hive, and so on. The hive simply collapses without its punctilious proletariat pollenating force of female ferocity.
- Male drone bees have the privileged task of mating with the queen and nothing more. They don’t have stingers to protect the hive and lack the equipment to gather pollen. But, following intercourse, their penises and connected internal organs are ripped from their bodies and they die. Otherwise, in the winter, they are starved out by the worker bees because mating males are no longer needed.
Unfortunately, all this travel in synthetic hives and industrial agriculture isn’t ideal for these complex network of bees, and serious issues, like colony collapse disorder (CCD), have become commonplace. Between 2007 and 2013, over 10 million hives were mysteriously lost to CCD, particularly in North America and Europe. CCD is the sudden disappearance of most of a hive’s worker bees, which effectually means the death of the hive, and as of yet, the cause isn’t officially known, though there are some likely culprits.
Protect the Bees at Home
For those wanting to protect bees at home, there are some easy ways to make significant strides.
- First of all, it would be a good idea to avoid agro-chemicals, especially pesticides, which is hopefully no big stretch for readers of a permaculture website. Even herbicides, which kill flowering “weeds” are troublesome because they cut off food source and the chemicals are carried to the hives and holes where the accumulation causes problems.
- Another important step would be planting plenty of diverse bee fodder, i.e. flowering plants and especially trees, which again should be no big diversion on a permaculture site. It’s really important to plant flowers that bloom at different times throughout the year so that pollen is always available.
- Additionally, bees, like most other animals, need water, so having shallow pools here and there would benefit them. Swales, dams, and ponds could all help with this, and one of them is likely on even small permaculture sites. A simple birdbath can suffice for patio or balcony gardens.
- Conserving (or designing) forests and preserving (or creating) wild areas would give bees space to make themselves homes and become part of the community.
Ultimately, one of the best things we can do on behalf of the bees is to spread the word, helping others set up bee sanctuaries and supporting local initiatives for sedentary bee populations. What better day to do it than World Bee Day!