Whatever your reasons for wanting to keep bees, you should know that beekeeping is fascinating and highly enjoyable, but it’s also vastly important. Some people do it for the delight of watching bees work. Then there’s the amazing crop of honey you can harvest which is probably better than anything you’ll ever find at the store. The challenge of beekeeping brings some obvious rewards. But it’s also an important contribution to your local ecosystem.
So why is beekeeping important? Bees are essential for pollinating plants and crops which in turn provides us with food. Around the world the number of honey bees is on the decline, so keeping bees is crucial to help increase the bee population. Beekeeping is also a skill that is becoming rare and there seems to be a drop in the number of beekeepers around the world.
So why are bee populations suffering ? And why are honey bees important in the first place ?
Let me tell you what I discovered:
The Importance of Honey Bees
For decades bee populations have been in decline. The reasons for this are baffling, but it’s thought that a number of different factors are to blame.
A large number of flowering plants rely on insect pollination where pollen grains are distributed by insects moving from flower to flower.
(This process is known as entomophily. Flowering plants need to create seeds which will grow to produce the next generation of plants, but this is only possible when pollen is transferred between flowers of the same species).
Bees are fantastic pollinators. In fact it’s estimated that about a third of America’s crops rely to some extent on bees. Some crops are highly dependent on bees and others only slightly. But the food on your plate would be very dull and lacking variety if bees were to disappear.
For example, some plants that get a boost from bee pollination include the following:
- Nuts such as almonds, cashews, and brazil nuts
- Seeds like sunflower, sesame, and flax
- Fruits such as apples, pears, and apricots
- Berries like strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries
- Vegetables such as broccoli, broad beans, and brussels sprouts
Can you imagine a world without blueberry pancakes ?!
I can’t. Mind you… You can keep the brussels sprouts!
These are just a handful of the food plants which rely on bees (if you’re interested you’ll find a more complete list here…)
Keep in mind that bees are also important for the pollination of crops used for feeding livestock, which in turn provide us with meat. So the consequences of pollination go beyond just the crops that we find on our plates.
Not all crops are pollinated by bees of course, but all plants and food crops also benefit from an environment which has a high level of biodiversity where the variety of plant and animal life in a particular area helps stimulate crop growth. So crops also benefit indirectly from the presence of honey bees.
The presence of bees provides an ecological balance by contributing to the well-being of other animal and plant species. This diversity is important for the protection of our environment.
Why are Honey Bees Dying?
For decades bee colonies have been suffering and their numbers decreasing, with commercial honey bee colonies dying at an alarming rate in the U.S. after 2007. The reasons for this decline are complex and it’s thought that a number of factors are responsible for the weakening of bees, including:
- Poor nutrition
- Loss & destruction of habitat
This kind of population problem has existed throughout the history of apiculture, but recently the phenomenon was given the name of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). What happens is that the worker bees in a colony disappear, leaving behind the queen bee and a hive which still contains honey and some brood (honeycomb containing infant bees). If all three of these things are present, (honey, brood and a queen) then this normally indicates that the hive is functioning correctly, making the disappearance of the adult bees a bit of a mystery.
Pesticides have been suggested as one of the principles causes, and several insecticides (known as neonicotinoids) have been banned in a number of countries as a result.
Parasites such as the Varroa Destructor mite are another potential source of colony destruction. These mites originated in Asia and spread to the United States in 1987, Canada shortly afterwards, and the U.K. in 1992. These nasty little vampires suck the blood of the bees and in doing so transmit disease. A significant mite infection can lead to the death of the colony.
Intensive farming practices have led to the destruction of large amounts of natural forage for bees. This change to the bee’s habitat reduces the diversity and quantity of nectar available for bees, leading to poor nutrition for bee colonies. Nectar is the energy rich food which bees rely on for making honey and as fuel to power flight. When poor nutrition is combined with other environmental stresses such as exposure to pesticides, it’s been found that honey bee survival can be reduced by upto 50%.
Despite all this the situation is perhaps improving. For example in 2017 the U.S. experienced a rise in commercial colonies by 3% and a decline in CCD. Several countries have now banned certain pesticides. New nutrition and dietary supplements for bees have been developed and better pest management methods have been introduced to help cope with parasites.
And new generations of concerned beekeepers are coming forth to help save our furry flying friends!
The Economic Importance of Beekeeping
The plants that we cultivate are an important source of revenue for farmers and essential to the economy as a whole. As the world’s population increases, the number of crops dependent on pollinators also increases year after year. Bees play a very important role in relation to agricultural production. Indeed beekeeping is a vital part of our agricultural system. Apart from crop plants which are highly dependant on bees, the presence of honey bees also improves the quality and quantity of crops in general.
It’s estimated that commercial beekeeping adds between $15 and $20 billion dollars in economic value to U.S. agriculture on a yearly basis (Yes that’s a ‘B’ )…! I’ve even read that in Europe bees contribute up to $29 billion dollars to European agriculture.
Commercial hives are rented out on a seasonal basis to pollinate a wide range of crops. Without these services crop yields would fall, food prices would rise, and the surety of agricultural production would be at risk.
Take the example of California’s almond orchards which represent one of the largest pollinating needs in agriculture in the United States. The orchards stretch across 800 acres are are estimated to require 1.6 million domesticated bee colonies to pollinate almond crops.
That’s a lot of bees !
Bee Population Decline Effects
The decreased presence of pollinating bees represents a danger to our natural environment and our agricultural system.
As you’ve already gathered from the previous paragraphs, part of our agriculture is directly and indirectly dependent on pollination by bees. Successful harvests depend on effective pollination and honey bees are an important contributor. The world’s food supply is therefore at jeopardy by the effects of a decline in the bee population.
A decline in the bee population would also put our ecosystem at risk. Without bees to pollinate the diverse range of flowering plants, those plants might be lost, and the animals who feed on those plants would disappear. In short the biodiversity of our natural habitats would suffer badly.
Why keep bees ?
There are a whole load of direct and indirect advantages to beekeeping. If you’re not yet convinced about the importance of beekeeping then maybe think about the following:
You can help save the bees. Becoming a beekeeper and adding a couple of beehives to your backyard, garden, or the rooftop of your apartment is a small but non-negligible contribution to the bee population.
Harvest your own honey. One of the obvious benefits of beekeeping is the wonderful crop of honey you get to harvest each season. And you’ll probably find the flavor is superior to anything you’ve purchased in the past.
Beeswax and propolis. Honey isn’t the only byproduct you can harvest thanks to your honey bees. Beeswax can be used to produce all kinds of produce including beauty products. Propolis is said to be antibiotic and anti-inflammatory and to have health benefits such as helping to heal wounds. It’s also used for other complementary therapies.
You can sell some of your produce for a profit. Part of your beehive produce can be sold for profit giving you a welcome supplementary income. In a very good season each hive can produce up to 60 lb (27 kg) of honey! Given that most beekeepers have a minimum of two hives, that’s much more than you can spread on your morning toast each year.
Boost your garden. If you’re an avid gardener or horticultural fan then putting a beehive in your garden will help make your plants flourish. Bees collect from their immediate environment meaning your backyard and the flowering plants it contains. The presence of bees increases your garden’s productivity because it will be well pollinated, thereby increasing the quantity and size of your fruit and flowers.
Bee zen! The majority of hobby beekeepers find this activity fascinating and some people even find it relaxing. The act of beekeeping can bring peace of mind and focus. It’s a rewarding, peaceful, and relaxing pastime.
Beekeeping is easy and simple. Keeping bees requires almost no space if you start with just a couple of hives, and you can successfully start a hive almost anywhere. Apart from weekly visits to inspect you hive during the active season and a flourish of activity when harvesting, beekeeping requires very little time.
Iit seems that beekeepers are an endangered species ! The skills and knowledge of tending to beehives are being transferred to less and less people. Beekeeping enthusiasts help to pass along knowledge and experience that would otherwise be lost.
Oh and by the way… You know those white bee suits people wear when inspecting hives ? Yep… You also get to dress up like an astronaut from time to time!
The world’s most important pollinator
So, because bees are such highly efficient pollinators, we need them to maintain a healthy ecosystem and to help secure food crops for future generations. Beekeeping even at a small scale can help. This fascinating and rewarding hobby even pays you back with harvests of golden honey.
Ask yourself… Where would we be without bees ?