Will Spring Flowers Bring Back Honey Bees?
The Myth of the Disappearing Honey Bee
Buzzing through the air on a warm spring day, honey bees search out the sweetness of a fresh flower. They dive into the open flower bud as you would a swimming pool full of bubbles, rolling in the pollen, covering themselves from head to toe. Then they fly off, carrying with them pollen on their back legs to take to another flower. What would happen if bees disappeared? Without bees, many flowers, fruits, and vegetables would not reproduce, would not come back the next year.
Bees are disappearing. They are flying away from their hives and not returning. Why are bees disappearing? There are many possible explanations; there is a blood sucking bee mite, viruses and parasites, pesticides and insecticides. There is also the stress that bees endure from urbanization – loss of habitat, greater number of crops to pollinate, and the cross-country trips they endure in the back of produce trucks. The truth is, nobody knows for sure, there is only speculation.
To understand this issue more clearly we must look beyond the hive – what kind of bees are disappearing? Are they disappearing everywhere or just in certain places? The disappearing bee, the honey bee, (Apis mellifera L.) came to North America with the first colonists from Europe and spread throughout the wild becoming feral, once domesticated but gone wild. Honey bees as we know them – black and yellow, live in hives, make tasty honey, and sting, sting, sting — came to Europe through Asia and the Middle East. The American honey bee is not even American.
What? Not American? Bees that are native to America are called solitary bees, pollen bees, or native bees. There are over 4000 species of bees native to North America. They are the quiet, boring, loner bees. They don’t live in hives but in holes in the ground, they produce little honey, and they are often grey or drab in color. Their primary raison d’être is to pollinate.
With all of the hoo-ha going on about the demise of the honey bee, beekeepers are considering the advantages of native bees (dubbed alternative pollinators or non-Apis) over honey bees. Native bees tend to pollinate more efficiently because they stay in one crop rather than flying between crops, they show resistance to mites and other parasites and viruses, they fly faster and pollinate more plants, and both male and female pollinate. In honey bees, only the females pollinate.
Why are we so worried about the disappearance of the honey bee? Honey bees are essential to the production of monoculture, a.k.a commercial agriculture. Monoculture grows one type of crop in an area and grows the same crop every year – meaning that all plants bloom at the same time. When large commercial crops bloom, beekeepers bring in hundreds of millions of honey bees to pollinate. With no other crops in the area, there is no place for bees to forage. After the blooming period many commercial growers spray pesticides. Honey bees are the ideal pollinators in monoculture because beekeepers can bring in the a large group of bees, pollinate the area, and then round them up and take them back to the hive.
Honey bees are in flux. Many experts say that the natural rhythm of nature is the cause of the current disappearance of some of the honey bees. As beekeepers on the East Coast and West Coasts of the U.S. are experiencing drops in quantities of their honey bees, in the Southwest U.S. they are thriving. The crops will come back next year, they always do.
Suggested Reading for Kids
Honey bees – Step-into-Reading by Emily Neye
The Life and Times of the Honey bee by Charles Micucci
The Bumblebee Flies Anyway by Robert Cormier
Bees of the World by Christopher O’Toole