When one thinks of agriculture, bees and honey rarely come to mind. Yet much of agriculture is dependent on one of nature’s single winged females, bees, to pollinate crops. Honey, exclusively made by female bees, is a valuable commodity.
Nationally, around 130 crops rely on bees to produce the produce. These include almonds, cherries, blueberries, apples, pears, peaches, squash and melons. Over half of the nation’s hives (1.7 or more million colonies) are needed just to pollinate almonds grown in the US. Pollination by bees is estimated to provide 15 billion dollars in revenue annually. Most bees provide this as a free service.
According to the Iowa Honey Producers Association, apples, strawberries, and raspberries in Iowa are 90% dependent on bee pollination and melons, pumpkins, cucumbers, and squash are 80% dependent. Soybeans are 5% dependent and the total value of pollination in Iowa is 92 million dollars. Honey bees are not native to North America. They come to us from Europe and can be considered Italian. Many crops such as blueberries and tomatoes are much more effectively pollinated by native bees. According to biologist Paulina Mena, native bees are specialists and have certain plants that they prefer and more effectively pollinate. For example, tomatoes are more easily pollinated by bees that buzz and produce a dust of pollen.
Not all bees form colonies. The honey bee does and lives in hives containing hundreds of individuals. Bumble bees congregate but only in dozens. The U.S. native bees, and most of the 19,000 bee species, are solitary which means that they are more damaged by habitat fragmentation than the colonizing bees.
Most bees are females and those you see working most certainly are. The males have one set of chromosomes and come from unfertilized eggs in a process known as parthenogenesis. Females come from fertilized eggs. The queen bee stores sperm and as she ages, she runs out of sperm, and produces more unfertilized eggs–more males. The males don’t work for the hive and eventually, it dies out naturally.
There is a unique Mayan bee species native to Central America that produces honey in colonies that can last up to 100 years. They are tiny bees, like sweat bees, and the colonies are kept by human families and passed down from generation to generation.
All bees face habitat loss and death from pesticides. In these maps, you can see states where bee populations have been decimated and where pesticides are most used. Iowa is ground zero for both. In places where pollinators have been killed because of pesticides, farmers must hand pollinate. I like to grow pumpkins. A pumpkin needs around 6-7 visits by a pollinator before the flower is properly fertilized. I’ve had years where I’ve gotten no pumpkins because I didn’t hand pollinate. This is not good. Besides being weakened by pesticides, bees tend to avoid plowed fields and suffer when wild flowers and clovers are removed from the environment.
People in the United States are the world’s most enthusiastic honey consumers. Honey is popular in industrial food processing and those little honey bears fly off the shelves in stores. Honey is one thing that Saudi Arabia imports from us. The top honey producing state is North Dakota followed by South Dakota, California, Florida, and Minnesota. Worldwide demand for honey is strong. However, care should be taken when eating honey that is imported. There are concerns that Chinese honey may be dangerous and contaminated.
In Iowa there are over 350 beekeepers owning 10,000 colonies inspected by the state. Overall, there are 30,000-35,000 total colonies of honey bees in Iowa. Some of the colonies weather in California and southern states. Local honey suppliers include Prairie Roots (pictured), Purely Organic LTD in Fairfield, Noble Bee Honey in South Amama and Ebert Honey in Lynnville. Ebert Honey began in 1980 and now has 700 hives. Ebert bees feed on local flowers. It can be purchased at Hy-Vee, Fareway and Pella Nursery.
Sixteen percent of flowers rely on bee pollination. Steven J. Baskauf of the Department of Biological Sciences at Vanderbilt University observes, “As insects, bees are relatively intelligent and are able to learn how to locate and operate particular species of flowers that are in bloom at a particular time. They are also relatively strong and are able to push their way into complicated flowers that are not accessible to other insects.”
Bees can’t see red so they mostly pollinate blue and yellow flowers with a place to land such as snapdragons, bee balm, passionflowers, clovers, dandelions, berry blossoms and sunflowers. Don’t be reluctant to plant red flowers. Butterflies love them. But you also have permission to let your dandelions grow.
Bees will transport about 40-70 pounds of pollen per year per hive as they gather nectar. Zipping from flower to flower allows for cross-pollination Bees also collect pollen that is mixed with honey and fed to baby bees. Pollen is a protein rich food while nectar provides the carbs. Honey is produced by the bees from nectar secreted by flowers. Nectar is converted to glucose and fructose thanks to enzymes produced by the bees. It is dried down by summer heat and fanning from the bees’ wings. This drying action creates the buzzing sound associated with beehives. It’s estimated that 4 pounds of nectar will produce a pound of honey. Each hive will produce 120-200 pounds of honey, stored as food for the bees. A bee will visit 100 to over a thousand flowers before her nectar storage area is full. Worker bees, which are all female, can work themselves to death. They live just 35 days at the peek of the summer. Worker bees produce beeswax as well and this is used to make the colony.
According to Phil Ebert of Ebert Honey in Lynnville, “Bees can fly a long way. 5 to 6 miles is not uncommon. However, it’s better if they can find forage close to home. They wear themselves out in a hurry if they have to fly long distances. When we are placing bees we try to locate a visible floral source within a mile of the bee location.”
Besides being an eco-friendly locally produced sweetener, honey makes a valuable and accepted home remedy. It contains loads of natural amino acids, antibacterial compounds, and micronutrients. It can be used as a cough syrup and mild burn remedy. It might be useful as a laxative and weight loss product. It is an effective antibacterial agent against sinusitis. It has been suggested as a hangover cure. It can even slow bacteria that cause dental plaque.
However, honey should not be given to babies under one year due to their immature digestive tracts. It contains botulism spores found in soil and dust that can cause a serious disease. (Honey is not the only source of these spores.) Keep in mind that it is still a sweetener and should be consumed in moderation.
Besides making useful materials and providing valuable services for humans, bees provide fascinating study for scientists. Most of a hive consists of worker bees that gather nectar and pollen for the hive and in the process pollinate flowers and crops. Bees in general are not aggressive except when they feel the hive is in danger. Some bees do have aggressive personalities while others are more laid back. Bees are known for having “hive intelligence” aka “swarm intelligence” or being “self organizing systems”. Like ants, there are no managers and nobody is in charge. As a group they function as an intelligent being and make better decisions than the individuals.
With an average of 50,000 bees to a colony, they work on consensus building. Thomas Seeley, a biologist at Cornell University has studied the bee decision-making process and now even uses this process at his department at work. Bees seek out diverse opinions, run them past the hive and then narrow choices.
Bees in the United States and other spots in the world have been disappearing. Bees do not return to the hive. Only 30% of hives make it through the winter. This phenomenon is known as Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD. It is thought to be due to a group of factors including pathogenic microbes, stress, mites which carry viruses, pesticides, poor quality nutrients, over-work and inbreeding of domestic bees.
According to Catherine Zentile of the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, in Great Britain “the biggest impact has been availability of food and drink, in particular the continuity of supplies throughout the colony cycle. The UK has lost 98% of its flower-rich grasslands and this has been devastating for …bees.” She suggests that gardeners set out a pot of sage rosemary and lavender to help the bees out.
Has CCD hit locally? Phil Ebert says, “Whether or not I am having a problem with CCD depends on how you define it. I would say no but our number one problem is keeping the bees alive. My number two problem is finding productive places to put them. There isn’t a lot of bee forage out there. Our biggest problem is with Varroa mites. When they get bad enough, the colony crashes. Some die in the box but most fly out and disappear. There are four main stress factors that affect bees—parasites, viruses, insecticides and poor nutrition. Put all of those in a box and shake them up and you have big trouble. One of the results of these stress factors is reduced queen viability. The question used to be, ‘How many years will a queen last?’ Now, a lot of them don’t last the season. I love beekeeping but it’s a scary way to make a living.”
The Agricultural Research Service has some tips on how to help your local bee. “ The best action you can take to benefit honey bees is to not use pesticides indiscriminately, especially not to use pesticides at mid-day when honey bees are most likely to be out foraging for nectar.”
“In addition, you can plant and encourage the planting of good nectar sources such as red clover, foxglove, bee balm, and joe-pye weed. For more information, see www.nappc.org.”
Currently, the plight of the bee is more of a sorrow than a crisis. There are still enough bees and enough honey, although growing demand and the cost of fuel for transportation is raising prices.
Honey and beeswax are produced without killing anything. In fact, pollen and nectar collection results in the spreading of life. For this reason, bees and honey are considered sacred symbols in many cultures. Now that I understand the importance of bees I’m planning to add a few more bee friendly flowers and vegetables to my garden.
Thank you to Phil Ebert of Ebert Honey and Paulina Mena of Central College for insightful comments and information. Thanks also to Steven Baskauf of Vanderbilt for permission to use his quote from his website.