Beewatch helps the honey bees
Beewatch promotes sustainable strategies to help the bees and the environment in the long run.
Bees and pollination
Bees are key to plant and animal survival.
No matter where you live in the world, if you walk around in nature, you will see flowers. They come in different shapes, different colors, different blossom, different size. But most of them can be seen as a banner that says “I NEED A POLLINATOR TO REPRODUCE”. And the vast majority of pollinators are bees.
Over 3/4 of all plants on Earth (350,000 species) use flowers to reproduce. 80 % of those flowering plants use animal for pollination, including birds and mammals, but mostly insects. Bees are the top insect pollinator.
The disappearance of pollinators would negatively impact over 65 % of the plants on Earth. This impact would travel up the trophic pyramid and successively affect the herbivores, the carnivores and the omnivores, including us, human beings.
Pollination is how flowering plants reproduce.
A flower is where male and/or female parts of a plant are displayed. Pollination is the male part (pollen) getting transferred to the female part (stigma) which leads to fertilization and ultimately to seed production. Waiting for this transfer to randomly happen is not a very efficient reproduction pathway. It is of interest for the plant to have this transfer facilitated, and the best way to do so is to recruit helpers: the pollinators. Bees are one of the most efficient pollinators on Earth. When a bee visits a flower, her body gets covered with pollen grain that she carries away to the next flower, hence transferring pollen grains from flower to flower.
A sweet deal between plants and bees
Bees don’t transport pollen around just to make plants happy. They do it because they get an important reward doing the job: they get FOOD. To reward the pollinators for their important role, plants produce a sweet liquid called NECTAR at the basis of most flowers. Nectar – together with pollen – is the main source of nutriment for bees. Looking for nectar in flowers, the bee gets covered with pollen and helps the plants by transferring the pollen grains to the next visited flower. This is a beautiful example of SYMBIOSIS: plants are helping the bees, and bees are helping the plants. For 130 million years, bees and plants have co-evolved on Earth and are now closely connected.
... IN NUMBERS ...
Honey bees are important to us
Is the honey bee “just” one of those pollinators?
Yes and no. There are about 20,000 species of bees on Earth. All of them play an important role in pollination. Only 7 of those species are honey bees… But those 7 species are very, very important to us, human beings, more than any other pollinators.
The honey bees are among the top beneficial insects
Human beings have been keeping bees for thousands of years. The first signs of domestication of bees appeared in Egyptian art 4500 years ago. Human beings are very special animals for many different reasons, and one of them is because they are farmers and cultivate the fruits and vegetables they like to eat. The other reason is that there are a lot of human beings on Earth to be fed. Therefore, humans had to find helpers who would help reproduce the variety of fruits and vegetable they liked and in large amount, in order to be able to feed everyone. The honey bee is the best suited for that task…
- Honey bees live in large colonies. Colonies are on average 60,000 individual, which represent a large work force to help with pollination.
- Unlike other bees, they overwinter, which means that they don’t die off before winter but stay alive and relatively active instead and are very quick on the following spring to get back to work. Most of the other bee species would instead spend much of spring reestablishing their colony that died off in fall (only the fertilized queen survives winter).
- They are transportable to allow pollination of different crops in different parts of the world each year, which has a huge impact on the global economy (several billions of dollar).
- Honey bees make… honey! Even if honey is not the main reason why human beings keep bees nowadays, it is still an amazing treat that most people enjoy.
... HOW INSECTS IMPROVE CROP YIELD ...
Alexandra-Maria Klein et al. 2007, Proceedings of Royal Society
Raspberries, after NON INSECT pollination (left and middle) and INSECT pollination (right). (Photo by Jim Cane, Bee Research Institute, Longan, USA).
Strawberries, after INSECT pollination (left) and NON-INSECT pollination (middle and right). (Photo by Kristine Krewenka, Agroecology, Göttingen, Germany).
Honey bees are dying
Why are the honey bees dying?
For the past 10 years, beekeepers in North America have been reporting a loss of 20 to 90 % of their bee population every year. Why are the bees dying?
There are several major factors accounting for the bee disappearance.
- Varroa Destructor Mites. Those parasites brought from Asia feed on bees’ blood and transmit viruses to the bee population. Infestation as low as 3 mites for 100 bees can already become a threat for a healthy colony. Varroa has now spread everywhere in the world except for a few isolated places like Australia.
- Pesticides that are sprayed onto crops and seeds. One major class of dangerous chemical is the nicotinoids pesticides that were shown to be both attractive and destructive to honey bees and bumble bees. That class of pesticide has been banned in Europe.
- Habitat loss brought about by development of our cities and monoculture agriculture.
- Bees’ bad nutrition. Bees are moved around in North America and used to pollinate crops. The farms renting bee hives for the service of these pollinators generally practice monoculture, which means the bees have access to only one kind of pollen/nectar for a period as long as one month. This unbalances the bees’ diet and has been pointed to as a factor of weakness of their immune system .
- When bee hives are transported across the continent, the bees are exposed to a tremendous amount of stress. If you ever witnessed the reaction of bees inside a hive when you knock on the wall of their house, you know how sensitive those creatures are to vibrations. Bees use vibrations as one of their favorite communication systems. It is easy to picture how a trip of thousands of miles on the back of a truck can stress the colony (before finally reaching a farm that practices monoculture…).
- Lack of genetic variability.
Helping the bees or treating them
Because Varroa mites seem to be the first reason why bees are dying, it is tempting to beekeepers to use chemical miticides to try to get rid of the mites and “save the bees”. But are those treatments really saving the bees? Is “saving the bees” making them dependent on a treatment for their survival? Miticides are not only a threat to the environment, but they also pollute the honey that we eat, and they contribute to the appearance of miticide resistant mites that are even more dangerous. And worst of all, they weaken the bees.
Honey bees appeared on Earth some 130 million years ago. To become those beautiful and smart insects they are today, they had to develop defense mechanisms to survive the different challenges Nature brought to them over time. Those challenges were as diverse as predators like hornets or bears, nectar dearth, or pathogens like Bacteria, viruses and parasites. Some of those pathogens were most likely as aggressive – or maybe more aggressive- than Varroa mite is today. The bees survived each pathogen without any kind of treatment. They did what every living organism does: they ADAPTED. Natural selection worked its way and helped build STRONG BEES, resistant bees, that would thrive until recently.
Then they started to die… and they are still dying.
A New Bond With Nature