Around a third of the food we eat is estimated to be dependent on bee pollination. In providing this pollination service, bees literally contributes billions in cash to the world economy.
In fact, as I write this in October 2010, the United Nations have just published a report, in which they place a value on insect pollination at £134 billion (153bn Euros).
The reason for putting a financial value on things are understandable, though I think it's an exceedingly narrow means of measuring real value. Basically, it misses the point that biodiversity is priceless.
When you consider how intricate the web of life is on this earth, the value of bees and other insects to the eco-system is obvious. They’re not only pollinating much of the food that we eat, they are also ensuring the future generations of all kinds of plants that in turn support other species.
Doesn't focusing on monetary value underestimates the wider importance of insect and bee pollination, to the environment, people, other living creatures and the environmental stability of the planet as a whole? More on this later.....
Then there are trees.
Some trees are able to
and others are pollinated by
but not all. For example, chestnuts, fruit trees, many (but not all) nut trees, cotoneasters among many others, are pollinated by bees. Let’s remember that trees are the lungs of the earth – so bees probably help us breathe too! And these trees provide important food and habitat for many creatures, which play a role in the food chain.
Well, I suppose instead of bee pollination, there’s always artificial pollination (or hand pollination) by humans – this is what the people in certain areas of China are doing in their apple and pear groves, having reportedly driven out the local pollinating bumblebee species with pesticide use. Honey bee pollination was attempted but was unsuccessful. Beekeepers are reportedly hesitant to rent their bee colonies because of excessive use of pesticide sprays on apples and pears. Artificial pollination is now a major undertaking, involving whole families - see the photograph below.
In the west, bee pollination is free when left to the wild bees, or is available through renting or purchasing colonies of bees - at least for now.
But let’s get back to the subject!
Bee Pollination – How Does it Work?
So how do bees pollinate? I have a whole page explaining the
plant pollination process.
However, to describe briefly here, bees pollinate by carrying pollen on their bodies from the male part (the ‘stamen’) of one flower to the female part (the ‘carpel’) of another flower.
Do Bees Other Than Honey Bees Pollinate?
Absolutely! Some different types of bees are more efficient than others for pollinating particular plants. If we take the time to observe what is happening in our gardens, we may see several different bee species pollinating our flowers, including various bumblebee species, but also solitary bees, such as leafcutters, mining bees, carpenter bees or mason bees.
Honey bees are primarily used for commercial pollination of crops
- read more here,
but increasingly, other types of bees are now being used too - and are being reared commercially.
I have mixed feelings about this. If agricultural landscapes are managed in harmony with nature, I believe it will pay us back, by pollinating our crops naturally by supporting insect populations.
My concerns currently are about agricultural systems that promote pesticide use and GMOs as well as habitat loss.
If you have read my page about bumblebee pollination, then you'll know I'm concerned about bee-welfare - as well as that of other insects and living creatures. I worry our practices are short-termist only, and are sentencing our wildlife, including our bees, to death.
The commercial rearing of native bees, (rather than using introduced, or non-naturalized species) to provide farmers with a pollination service, may seem like a good idea - and yes, it has merits, because it is a bad idea to bring in non-native species that could transmit new viruses and diseased to which the native species have not built resistance.
But for me, it is also like covering up the cracks in the wall, rather than dealing with the issues causing the problems at the foundation of the building.
First, I think we need to address the problems that are causing bees to die or dcline, before we start tinkering with our other native bee species.
Also, I feel we should never forget the importance of honey bees. Read my page here about
why honey bees matter.
To read more about some of the independent studies into pesticides,
But for now, let’s take a look at other types of bees and pollination.
The Megachilidae Family
These types of bees are extremely efficient pollinators. This family includes mason and leafcutter bees. Some are used in commercial pollination, such as Alfalfa leafcutter bees (Megachile rotundata), and Osmia lignaria (the "Orchard Mason Bee" or "Blue Orchard Bee"), which is especially sold for use in orchard crop pollination.
According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture researchers, only 250 female blue orchard bees (Osmia lignaria) are required to pollinate an acre of apples - a service equivalent to one or two honey bees hives, each containing 15,000 to 20,000 workers (Bosch and Kemp, 2001).
It's possible to farm in harmony with nature, attract these bees to the land, which is better for crop yields. More about this shortly.
Bumblebees are also used for commercial pollination of crops, although farmers can attract them naturally to their land by using wildlife friendly farming techniques, such as allowing areas of meadow, maintaining pollinator margins and so on.
Some plants require ‘buzz pollination’ – this is especially important for crops such as cranberries and blueberries. Bumblebees are very efficient ‘buzz pollinators’.
Additionally, different types of bumblebees have different tongue lengths, and so bumblebees as a whole will tackle a wide variety of plants. Tead more about
That honey bees are widely used for pollination is well known. I won’t go into detail on this page, since I have a further page about honey bee pollination
Recently, problems have been highlighted around the consequences of transporting commercially reared bees to areas outside of their native ranges, and the impact on indigenous species. Read more
here (opens new window).
The excellent Xerces Society has also produced a wonderful guide for farmers wishing to encourage and establish native bee populations on their farms. There is a link to this report at the bottom of this page.
Albert Einstein is said to have estimated humans would have only 4 years to live if bees left the planet. Nowadays, scientists say we’d probably survive, but of course our diets would be far more restricted.
I wonder if they are ignoring the impact on social systems and international relations in a world where already, 15 million children die every year from hunger. What will happen if there are food shortages, and prices rise, due to a lack of the simple things we took for granted.....like insect and bee pollination?
I don’t wish to sound alarmist, but I’m afraid I think it is also important to not underestimate the potential problems that could be caused, especially when we are dealing with the unknown.
I think we humans do not fully understand the intricate web of life that exists on this planet. Simple things are too easy to overlook, others have probably not been discovered yet.
Plant life in the sea has only recently been proven to be important to the quality of the very air we breathe. So what else is out there waiting for us to discover, and what if it provides some vital link in the chain – and then what if it happens to be rely on bees or other pollinators?
The good news is, everyone can do something to help bees. There are
10 simple things listed right here.
Together, we can make a crucial difference. It has to start with individuals, like you and me. Hey, if it doesn’t start with individuals, who will it start with?!
To learn more about bee pollination and related topics, why not check out these links:
Why not find out more about honey bee pollination, by clicking this link.
Bumblebees are excellent pollinators
They can even ‘buzz pollinate’. Learn more here.
How do flowers attract their perfect pollinators?
Yes, some insects prefer the stench of rotting flesh to the fragrance of sweet peas. Find our more!
Read about the contribution and importance of insect pollinators.
Why do wild bees matter? For those who think we don't need to be concerned about our wild bees, this page looks at the importance of these insects - our 'unsung hero' pollinators.
Here is an introduction to some of the issues faced by our bees
Types of Bees
And here is more information about the different types of bees, with a fun link
explaining about the insect order ‘hymenoptera’, and the ‘families’ the different kinds of bees belong to.
Xerces Report - Farming For Bees
It can be a little slow to download, but it's an excellent report. It's a great resource for land owners, and shows the benefits of doing things differently. Lot's of advice about how to benefit from native bee pollination - and it's free. There's a great case study too.
Link back from Bee Pollination to Home page.