The lives of humans and honeybees have been intertwined for millennia. For at least 8,000 years, humans have sought honey for applications in disciplines ranging from medicine to the culinary arts. But while humans love honey, honeybees provide a much more valuable service: pollination. As the world’s most prolific pollinator, honeybees are essential to the reproduction of many plant species, which in turn benefits other animals and plants. In fact, humans heavily rely on honeybees to pollinate our own food source, a service that is worth billions of dollars a year. Unfortunately, the honeybee population is in a severe and prolonged decline, often in the form of colony collapse disorder, in which entire colonies are seemingly abandoned by adult bees overnight. Honeybees are an indispensable component of modern agriculture, and a failure to discern and address the many causes of honeybee population decline – both manmade and natural – could have disastrous consequences for the environment and human society.
Flowering plants have two main reproductive parts; the male part is called the stamen and produces pollen, while the female part is called the pistil. For pollination to occur, the pollen must be transferred from the stamen to the pistil. This transfer can occasionally be caused by wind, but it is most often facilitated by animals called pollinators. Pollinators do not intentionally set out to fertilize flowers; rather, they unintentionally spread pollen while roaming from plant to plant in search of food. There are many different species – including birds, butterflies, and bats – that act as pollinators, and many of these species are also suffering declines in population. However, honeybees are the most prolific pollinators in modern agriculture, which implies that their plight may be the one that requires the most immediate attention.
Pollen itself is an important food source for honeybees. The legs and abdomens of bees are covered in relatively long hairs that trap pollen. Many bees also have a body part called the pollen basket, which is formed by a concave region on the tibia of the hind legs and is surrounded by hairs. Once a honey bee has landed on a flower, it begins to groom itself. During the grooming process, pollen is pushed towards the hind legs and pollen baskets. The bee then mixes a bit of nectar into the pollen so that it sticks together, and the hair surrounding the pollen basket keeps the pollen in place. This process allows the bee to transport collected food from the flowers back to the colony. On its way from flower to flower, the bee loses some pollen, which fertilizes other flowers and allows the plant to reproduce.
Honeybees and Agriculture
Honeybees are native to Africa and Europe, but humans have spread them throughout the world. When honeybees were first brought to North America by European settlers in the 17th century, Native Americans referred to them as “white man’s flies” (Turpin, 1999)....