Breakdown: Why bees are important to the environment

Updated: May. 19, 2021 at 7:26 AM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - It takes more than soil, water, and sunshine to make the world green. Bees also play a vital role in the environment!

The vast majority of plant species-- almost 90%, in fact-- rely on pollinators to reproduce. This means bees are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we eat, according to the College of Agriculture & Natural Resources at Michigan State University.

As well as being pollinators, honey bees (scientific name Apis mellifera) also produce honey. Honey, of course, is the most well-known and economically important beehive product. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agriculture Statistics Service, honey bees made 157 million pounds of honey in 2019. With the cost of honey at $1.97 per pound, that’s a value of a little over $339 million.

Honey is food made by bees for bees, but many people also enjoy it. In addition to being delicious, honey has medicinal properties and numerous health benefits. Honey contains antioxidants, which can protect the body from inflammation. Inflammation can lead to a variety of health issues, including heart disease, cancer, and autoimmune disorders. One study discovered that antioxidants in buckwheat honey were detectable in blood plasma, showing that eating honey could enhance antioxidant activity in the body.

In addition to honey, they produce 4 other products: beeswax, royal jelly, propolis, and venom, all of which are collected and used by people for various nutritional and medicinal purposes.

After honey, beeswax is the second most important hive product from an economic standpoint. Dating back to ancient Greece and Medieval Europe, beeswax continues to be a popular product. Whether for making candles and being used as an ingredient in artists’ materials and in leather and wood polishes, it has a numerous uses. The pharmaceutical industry uses the substance as a binding agent, time-release mechanism, and drug carrier. Beeswax is also one of the most commonly used waxes in cosmetics. The U.S. is a major producer of raw beeswax, as well as a worldwide supplier of refined beeswax.

Royal jelly is a gelatinous substance produced by honey bees to feed the queen bees and their young. It’s frequently sold as a dietary supplement to treat a variety of physical ailments and chronic diseases.

Propolis is a compound produced by bees thought to fight infections, heal wounds, and more.

Bee venom can be used as a natural treatment for a variety of ailments, ranging from reducing inflammation to treating chronic illnesses, and more.

But the greatest importance of honey bees to agriculture isn’t a product of the hive at all: It’s their work as crop pollinators.

This agricultural benefit of honey bees is estimated to be between 10 and 20 times the total value of honey and beeswax. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, bee pollination accounts for about $15 billion in added crop value.

Pollination is vital to the approximately 250,000 species of flowering plants that depend on the transfer of pollen from flower anther to stigma to reproduce.

Bees make excellent pollinators because most of their life is spent collecting pollen, a source of protein that they feed to their developing offspring. When a bee lands on a flower, the hairs all over the bees’ body attract pollen grains through electrostatic forces. Stiff hairs on their legs enable them to groom the pollen into specialized brushes or pockets on their legs or body, and then carry it back to their nest. Individual bees tend to focus on one kind of flower at a time, which means it is more likely that pollen from one flower will be transferred to another flower of the same species by a particular bee. Many plants require this kind of pollen distribution, known as cross-pollination, in order to produce viable seeds. The business of collecting pollen requires a lot of energy, and so many flowers attract and also reward bees with nectar, a mixture of water and sugars produced by plants.

As pollinators, bees play a part in every aspect of the ecosystem. They support the growth of trees, flowers, and other plants, which serve as food and shelter for creatures large and small. Bees contribute to complex, interconnected ecosystems that allow a diverse number of different species to co-exist.

There is no doubting the importance of bees to our food supply. Without them, our gardens would be bare and our plates empty.

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