Traditionally speaking, when we hear about honeybees, we think about insects that sting. We also think about pollination and of course by proxy, honey.
These associations may only be fleetingly considered, but when you take a moment to really think about how significant the act of pollination actually is, you realize these little critters are way more important than they seem at first glance.
So what’s the big deal about pollination? Besides, when Spring comes around, pollen wreaks havoc on millions that suffer from allergies, so there can’t be anything good about it, right?
Pollination is crucial for the fertilization of all flowers to reproduce, whether it’s your typical daisy in a meadow, or a flower on your fruit or vegetable crop, with the latter being most important to our well-being as humans.
The process of pollination requires the transfer of pollen grains from a male flower to the receiving reproductive organs of the female flower; sometimes flowers are hermaphroditic and contain both male and female reproductive components, allowing for easier pollination.
Now, finding great pollen-producing flowers isn’t just an intuitive skill. You have to set out and find them! So, if you’re also wondering how honeybees communicate with their hive mates about where they’ve located the best pollen and nectar sources, take a quick moment to watch this short, cool video below (you’re gonna love it):
Honeybees aren’t the only creatures that carry out this process, as various bird species also engage in the pollination of flowers, such as hummingbirds, spiderhunters, and honeyeaters, to name a few. As a matter of fact, 87.5% of plant flower species are visited by animals for pollination purposes. 75% of all crops used directly for human consumption worldwide are pollinated by insects, the majority of which are bees.
However, bird species for instance, are experiencing negative unintended consequences of climate change, which is limiting their ability to pollinate as they traditionally would. Definitely take a look at the article, Our Silent skies – 3.1 Billion Birds Lost, for more details on the crisis afflicting our birds.
Additionally, western honeybees are the most frequent floral visitor of crops, worldwide, and unfortunately, a concern over their well-being is growing as honeybee populations are dwindling across the globe. This also opens up the conversation to how this impacts the success of agricultural industries and our resulting food supply.
So what is leading to the decline in bees’ numbers, and hindering their ability to pollinate? I’ll list a few reasons:
Lack of biodiversity: Studies have shown that pollination is most successful with diverse populations of pollinators, as they tend to forage on the upper half of plants, while wild bees tend to pollinate closer to the ground. In settings where environmental conditions are windier, honeybees tend to leave the setting, but wildbees continue pollinating at the same rate.
However, when biodiversity is lower and only honeybees are present in those same harsh conditions, little to no pollination occurred. So some bees are just built to handle more stressful settings…honeybees, maybe not so much.
Honeybee competition: Interestingly enough, honeybees that are managed in apiaries by bee-handlers seem to out-compete wild bees and drive them from their natural habitats, thus reducing the diversity of bees in a given area.
Pollution: Research has shown that honeybees that are exposed to elemental heavy metals from pollutants in their environments, such as cadmium and lead, may negatively alter their feeding behavior.
Fortunately, there are other groups investigating certain gut microbes that can scavenge and metabolize these heavy metals that dwell within the bee host, and could serve as a probiotic of sorts for sickly honeybees. The use of pesticides have also been of concern when accounting for bee colony loss.
Infection: In conjunction with pesticide exposure, there have been outbreaks of parasite exposures and various other pathogens that have burdened bee populations worldwide, and veterinary researchers are hard at work to quell this issue.
As you can see, our sweet little honeybee friends are quite sensitive to their environments. We have to be mindful of not only what we’re doing to nature, but how nature is responding to our actions. They may be small, but honeybees play a huge role in our well-being, bigger than many of us may have realized. So, pay them some respect, and show them some love.
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