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Bees are an important species impacting many aspects of human life, particularly agriculture. Plant production in agriculture requires fertilization of plant gametes. This is enabled by pollination, which is largely about the transfer of pollen grains from one section of the flower to another. In the best cases of pollination, pollen from one plant is transferred to another plant of the same species. This is called cross pollination. Genetic diversity in plants of the same species is better with cross pollination than with self pollination or vegetative growth of new plants. This article discusses the importance of honey bees in agriculture, and gives you a perspective on the roles all bee species play in sustaining life on Earth and the impact that they have on our ecosystems.
Agricultural Benefits of Honey Bees
Honey bees in the USA are not a native species. They were introduced to the continent. When colonies of honey bees are found living in the wilds of the USA, they are better referred to as feral; not wild colonies. Many crops in the USA are also not native plant species. They have evolved in regions where bees were present before being introduced to the USA. It is only natural that the plants require large populations of honey bees to pollinate them. These plants and bees have become essential parts of the USA’s agricultural and biodiversity systems.
The value of pollination by honey bees in the USA is estimated to be more than 14 billion dollars annually. Many crops that are important to human life in the country depend on honey bees for pollination. Production of plants is increased by pollination only. Other practices in agriculture such as the application of pesticides and fertilizers are aimed at preventing losses and preservation of quality. They do not have an effect of increasing yields, unlike pollination.
For this important function in agriculture, farmers cannot rely on feral bees only. If there are no colonies of feral bees near your field, you will have very low yields. Contracts with migratory beekeepers are therefore common. Beekeepers move millions of beehives across the country every year. They are useful with pollination of almonds, cantaloupe, sunflowers and apple trees among others. For California’s famous almond plantations, about 1 million honey bee colonies are needed for adequate pollination.
The life of honey bees drives them to be pollinators. They need nectar and pollen as their food. Nectar forms the part of honey bee diet that contains sugar. Pollen is rich in protein content and used by bees as the main solid food. To collect these necessary food materials, honey bees have to visit the flowers of plants.
Over the millennia, evolution has led to both plants and bees developing complementary features that make bees a highly significant pollinator. Honey bees of various types in the beehive fed on different foods. Nurse bees and worker bees eat pollen and honey or nectar. The nurse bees secrete food for brood from their mouths. They also have secretions that they feed to the queen bee. Foraging worker bees often feed on nectar as they collect it. Nectar is used in the beehive in its natural form or as honey. For it to become honey, it is made to have high sugar concentration by reducing the amount of water in the nectar.
Honey bees in agriculture are important for another reason too – the products they give us. Beekeeping is the practice of maintaining honey bee colonies for their economic significance. From beehives, we harvest honey, beeswax and other products. The sale of colonies to beekeepers starting new hives is also an avenue to make money from honey bees. Many beekeepers have large operations in which they keep many honey bee colonies. They maximize profits in such beekeeping operations and can carry out beekeeping as the sole agricultural activity, or practice it alongside other agricultural production activities.
In recent years, more beehive products have been discovered. They include royal jelly, propolis and live bees such as the queen bee. Innovations and adoption of various technologies in beekeeping have made it a profitable undertaking for many people. Today, beekeepers are to be found everywhere in the land including in urban areas.
Importance of Bees for Sustaining Life on Earth
The importance of bees extends to general sustenance of life on earth. Flowering plants benefit from the activities of bees in no small way. Pollination of plants is the most visible role of bees sustaining life on Earth. In addition to pollination, species such as honey bees give us products such as honey and beeswax. However, the total value of honey and beeswax harvested from managed honey bee colonies pales in comparison to the work of bees as pollinators.
The Importance of Pollination
Pollinators have strong influence in ecologies. They impact relationships, ecological stability, floral diversity and specialization. In terrestrial ecosystems, bees have very important roles as pollinators. They have ensured the survival of many species of trees in savannah woodlands, tropical forests, temperate deciduous forests and in mangrove forests. Many species of animals and plants would die out if bees were not present in their ecosystems. Bees maintain biodiversity in many ecosystems including those in cultivated and non-cultivated areas.
Pollination is important to more than 250,000 plant species. They depend on transfer of pollen from the anthers of flowers to the stigma for reproduction to occur. Various agents are required for this transfer including wind, water, birds and insects. Bees are a major insect involved in pollination. This is because they feed on nectar and pollen. They enter flowers to collect these materials and end up facilitating transfer of pollen from the anthers to the stigma of flowers.
Why Bees Make Great Pollinators
Plants have various mechanisms that ensure genetic diversity. Some plants allow self fertilization to occur while others do not. It is with the flowers that do not allow self fertilization that bees are a lot of help. With such plants, pollen from the same flower cannot fertilize the plant. The pollen must come from the flower of another plant of the same species for fertilization to be successful. Bees are good at cross pollinating plants of the same species. They tend to move through flowers of the same species when foraging. This behavior is unlike that of other insects and birds that often move haphazardly from one flower, to the next flower of a plant that is not of the same species.
Another aspect about bees that makes them great pollinators is their hairiness. Bees are very hairy in comparison to other insects. Hairs on bees have a branched end structure. It is highly effective in catching pollen and retaining it close to the body of the bee. Flowers that depend on bees for pollination have evolved to have mechanisms and structures that ensure bees brush up against the anthers as it goes for the nectar in the flower.
These plants also have a tendency to open their flowers during the daytime. The flowers are brightly colored to attract insects such as bees but are rarely red in color. Bees are very much attracted to flowers of colors white, yellow and blue. The more evolved of these flowers have guides that show the bees the way to nectar. They however, have less powerful scent than the flowers that depend on night pollination by moths and bats.
Bees are capable of learning where in a flower the nectar is found. Flowers too have coloration that guides bees to nectar. Once a honey bee has learned where the nectar is in one flower, it can find the nectar with ease in other flowers of plants of the same species. This is all in addition to honey bees learning what time flowers of different plant species open. A single bee can recall the flower opening times of up to 7 species of plants and their locations.
Bees in general are highly significant players in ecosystems and sustaining life on earth due to their pollination activities. Some bees are specialized for pollination of specific plants species. The plants too have evolved to develop a close interdependence with the pollinator bees. Such co-evolutionary relationships make bees indispensable to the planet. Protection of such species is important because the loss of one species, means loss of the other species.
How Bees Impact an Ecosystem
Many factors influence the success of ecosystems. They include temperatures, soil, water and sunshine. Animal life also plays a role in maintaining healthy ecosystems. They can move around and serve as vehicles for transfer of pollen and seeds. In transfer of pollen, animals are pollinators. When they are involved in transferring seeds of plants from one location to another, they are seed dispersal agents. Animal activity is not limited to the large animals in ecosystems. It includes all non-plant organisms, including insects. An ecosystem without insect life dies sooner or later.
A complete ecosystem includes microbial, animal, plant and insect life. It is supported by energy sources including the sun and soil. Food chains and pyramids in individual ecosystems transfer energy from one organism to the other, in a gradual process that ends with apex predators and scavengers. In ecosystems, bees facilitate the existence of many plant and animal species. They also serve as food to some predatory species that prey on bees.
Bees are a highly visible insect in ecosystems. They are very much involved in pollination. While their size makes involvement in seed dispersal difficult, they have a vital role in pollination. It impacts the presence and continued thriving of plant species in the ecosystem. Without bees to pollinate them, many plants in the ecosystem would die off. It affects all other species in the ecosystem that might be reliant of the plant for shelter or food. In the wild, one plant species can be useful to many insect and animal species.
In addition to the role they play in plant growth and continuity of species, honey bees in particular are an important food source. They make honey for their consumption when they cannot go out to collect nectar and pollen. Excess honey is often harvested by humans for use as a food. In nature, many insects and animals also have a liking to honey. They often enter beehives to eat honey or bee brood. Some animal and insect species also eat honey bees as part of their primary diet. Spiders, dragonflies, praying mantises and birds such as blackbirds, starlings and hummingbirds are known for eating honey bees.
Trees are important to bees, and bees are important for tree and other plant life. Ecosystems depend on plant life to trap energy and nutrients for later circulation in the ecosystem. Trees provide shelter for bees of many types. Bees help pollinate many trees in return. Global biodiversity is impacted by all bee species. It would suffer great losses if bees were removed from the ecosystems. Biodiversity is greater in regions of the world and in ecosystems that support bees than in places where there are none. Various factors including temperature can make a region unsuitable for the survival of bees.
Issues Facing Honey Bees
Beekeepers across the USA are experiencing unprecedented drops and losses in number of managed honey bee colonies. These losses have been attributed to climate change and use of pesticides. Feral honey bee colonies have not been spared either. Invasive pests are also taking their toll on honey bee colonies. Such pests include mites and hive beetles. They have applied so much pressure on honey bees that they are causing significant colony losses. Diseases too are affecting honey bees. The American chalkbrood and foulbrood are the most significant diseases impacting honey bees. Beekeepers across the country are putting in place various measures to fight the challenges encountered in maintaining healthy honey bee colonies. Sometimes they are successful, other times they are not.
Various efforts aimed at helping honey bees thrive in ecosystems are being carried out. Governments, individuals and organizations are leading efforts to create awareness about the plight of honey bees and are spearheading conservation activities. Among their various undertakings, these stakeholders are promoting beekeeping, including conservation beekeeping. In conservation beekeeping, the beekeeper manages a colony of honeybees and allows swarming when the colony wants to. This encourages presence of feral colonies that serve as a genetic reservoir for honey bees in a wide area. It keeps honey bee colonies resistant to some diseases and able to fight off infestations by some pests and parasites.
Conservation beekeeping sometimes requires the beekeeper to not harvest beehive products. It is however advisable to remove some products such as old wax comb. Other hive maintenance practices must also be carried out to ensure best health of the honey bee colony.
A Final Word
Plant production in agriculture accounts for a very large percentage of food consumed in the world. In the USA alone, plants and their derivatives form more than 2/3 of food content. Bees are a major player in the presence of plant life on the planet. They are under pressure from various factors including climate change and use of pesticides. It is important to understand and protect the roles of honey bees in agriculture. The public, authorities, beekeepers and conservation organizations are all doing a lot to ensure that honey bees are present in our ecosystems. Now that you know the importance of honey bees in agriculture, it would be great of you to become an active advocate for honey bee conservation.
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