For many people, thoughts of bees are often dominated by swarms of small yellow and black “bugs” that live in hives, make honey, and attack with a painful sting. This, however, is far from the true nature of some of the most important organisms on Earth. Familiar bees of the Order Hymenoptera include the honey bees, bumble bees, stingless bees, and carpenter bees. Members of these four bee groups are all social except the carpenter bees, which often make nests close together in wooden structures. The majority of bees are, however, solitary and each fertile female constructs her own nest. Solitary bees are also important pollinators in natural ecosystems and drastically outnumber the social bees. Honey bees are used commercially for large scale pollination (agricultural crops and other plants) and honey production. The practice of maintaining honey bee colonies is termed beekeeping or apiculture (from the Latin word for bee, apis). Beekeeping as a source of income varies from hobbyists that keep fewer than 25 colonies and make up the majority of beekeepers and those professionals that manage between 300 and 60,000 colonies. Only about 1% are commercial beekeepers that rely on bees for their livelihood and provide most of the nation’s pollination services. Honey bees can be used for large-scale honey production because they stockpile honey for an entire colony. Modern hives can be moved in order for the bees to pollinate some areas and focus on honey production in others. Areas where production hives are set up are called apiaries.
It is estimated that in North America around 30% of the food humans consume is produced from bee pollinated plant life. The value of pollination by bees is estimated around $16 billion in the US alone. We would be unable to enjoy most of our favorite fruits, vegetables, or nuts without these pollinators. Bees also pollinate crops such as clover and alfalfa that cattle feed on, making bees important to our production and consumption of meat and dairy. Honey production from around 135 thousand American beekeepers caring for approximately 2.44 million colonies totaled almost 148.5 million pounds in 2007. This production was worth over $150 million with a per pound cost of all honey at 103 cents (National Agricultural Statistics Service).
|Crop||Value in billions(2006)||% Bee Pollinated|
|from:USDA; RA Morse & NW Calderone(Cornell University)|
For a non-exhaustive list of plants pollinated by bees see:
Although honey is often the first product to mind, bees also make or are indirectly involved in making other goods. These include honey based products (such as candy), beeswax, pollen (as a supplement), candles, propolis (or bee glue, used in cosmetics), as well as additional bees for sale to other parties. Whereas crop pollination is, by far, the most important and profitable of bee services, honey is the most well known and most profitable of the direct products resulting from the efforts of honey bees. Many millions of pounds of honey are produced each year in the United States and bring in billions of dollars of revenue. Natural honey is sweet, pleasant smelling, and delicious to many. It can also be artificially and naturally flavored with nuts and spices.
|2007 US Honey Export||2007 US Honey Import|
|Quantity (kg)||Value($)||Quantity(kg)||Value ($)|
For intensive statistics on honey import, export, and domestic production see:
For more on the way bees make honey, click here.
Mites are a major cause of population decline in our bee friends that is not related to habitat destruction. Tracheal mites and varroa mites were discovered in bees of the US in 1984 and 1987, respectively. Since then, beekeepers have had to deal with decreased production and increased maintenance costs when colonies are infested or die. Cost of treating an infestation can reach almost 20% of produced honey value.
Colony collapse disorder (or CCD) is another major reason for bee population decline (abnormally high die-offs). Its direct cause, however, is not known. Insecticide use, disease, mites, environmental stresses, and malnutrition are some of the possible culprits of the now prevalent syndrome. However, it is most likely attributed to multiple simultaneous stressors working in conjunction with each other. For more information about mites and CCD, click here.
Africanized bees (“killer bees”) are more of a public relations problem than anything. When African honey bees interbred with European honey bees escaped from hives in Brazil, they commingled and bred with the local bee populations and Africanized bees were formed. Eventually, these new bees spread into the southernmost United States. As areas become further Africanized, management of colonies becomes more difficult as the need to replace queens increases, labor costs increase, and apiary sites (places to keep beehives) decrease as landowners prefer to keep these hybrids at a distance. Though they are mostly limited to the Southern United States, they have been seen as far north as Kansas City, Missouri.
Without a way to curtail this decline in honey bee numbers, fewer domestic bee colonies will be available for production of goods and pollination and there will be an increase in reliance on foreign supplements (i.e. China & Argentina). Sadly, the number of beekeepers and colonies has been decreasing since the middle of the century. Early causes were industry and land loss and, more recently, additional land loss (suburban sprawl), price competition from imports and population crashes from mites, disease, and colony collapse.
According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service: “Honey production in 2007 from producers with five or more colonies totaled 148 million pounds, down 4 percent from 2006. There were 2.44 million colonies producing honey in 2007, up 2 percent from 2006. Yield per colony averaged 60.8 pounds, down 6 percent from the 64.7 pounds in 2006. Colonies which produced honey in more than one State were counted in each State where the honey was produced. Therefore, yields per colony may be understated, but total production would not be impacted. Colonies were not included if honey was not harvested. Producer honey stocks were 52.5 million pounds on December 15, 2007, down 13 percent from a year earlier.”
The New York Times also noted that in the past two decades, the number of colonies has fallen by a fourth and beekeepers by half. The cost to maintain a colony has more than doubled since 2004 (around $55 to $135). Unfortunately, there are increasingly more crops to pollinate. Profitability is taking a beating from these factors and the problem appears to be compounding. Bumble bees are also on the decline in many countries. Though the reason is wholly unclear, it may be due to habitat destruction and pesticide use. Continued and long-lasting decline in honey bees and bumble bees will cause widespread decrease in pollination of many plants and, thus, lead to a decrease in plant diversity in areas where bee pollination is vital. Thus, not only is the economy taking a hit from the problem of bee decline, but we are losing a major ally in the continued efforts of resource management and may also lose favorable plants.
Click here for more on population decline.
Carpenter bees, though usually seen as a nuisance to humans, are capable of major structural damage from repeated colonization. They bore into wood to make their homes. Males are territorial and can be quite aggressive but lack the danger of a stinger. Females do have stingers but rarely use them and, in fact, are rarely even seen flying. Although carpenter bees are well known pests, they are also prolific pollinators of many wild plants.
Bumble bees are important pollinators of agricultural crops and wildflowers. Bumble bees are not major honey producers for human consumption because they only make enough honey to feed the colony and do not stockpile. They are important in managed tomato and pepper pollination in greenhouses and also efficiently pollinate blueberries. Bumble bees are more efficient pollinators of some plants than honey bees because they employ “buzz pollination” –creating vibrations to dislodge pollen- whereas honey bees do not. The management and use of these bees is termed Bombiculture after the Latin tribe name Bombini. Bumble bees, which have long tongues, utilize and pollinate plants that other shorter tongued bees cannot.
Megachilid bees include the mason bees and leafcutting bees. These bees are efficient pollinators of many plants including alfalfa, carrot and other vegetables (alfalfa leafcutting bee) and orchard crops (Blue orchard bee or orchard mason bee). These bees have their pollen-carrying structure (scopa) underneath their abdomen rather than on the hind legs as in the other bee families. The management and use of these bees is termed megachiliculture after the Latin family name Megachilidae.
Stingless bees (or meliponines) are a tropical group of social bees that are of economic importance in many of the areas of the world in which they occur. While they make honey like the honey bee, yield is far less per colony per year. They are also important pollinators of wild plants and crops such as macadamias and mangoes. The name for these bees is misleading as their "stingers" are highly reduced and non-functional. They are not found in the United States. The management and use of these bees is termed meliponiculture after the Latin tribe name Meliponini.
Here are several additional links to websites that may provide you with more detailed information.