The Importance of Bees


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Honeybees are flying insects that are distinguished by their capacity to produce and store honey. While the production of honey is important for the economy, there are a variety of other ways that bees contribute to modern day society. By better understanding the role that bees play in the world, including the products that they create and the history of beekeeping, you can better appreciate this important little insect.

The Benefit of Bees

Bees are some of the world’s hardest working creatures, and humans have a variety of things to thank this little insect for. Agriculturally speaking, bees pollinate one-sixth of the world’s flowering plants, equaling about 400 different types of plants. Honeybees provide invaluable pollinating services that produce billions of dollars’ worth of U.S. agricultural products each year.

Bees are also responsible for creating a variety of food items. For many people, honey is the first bee-produced food product that comes to mind, and this sweet and sticky substance is created when bees regurgitate nectar before sealing it into a honeycomb. This amber liquid is popular with humans, and in 2013, the U.S. honey crop was estimated at over $317 million. If bees were to stop pollinating agricultural plants, foods like cantaloupe, blueberries, watermelons, cucumbers, and many others would no longer be available.

The service of pollinating flowers is important for farming, but it also serves another essential purpose regarding improving the floral landscapes of the planet. By keeping local flowers pollinated, bees promote floral growth, and this creates attractive habitats for other insects, birds, and mammals.

The History of Beekeeping

Beekeeping has been used since ancient times, and depictions have also been seen on the walls of the NyuserreIni sun temple from before 2422 BCE. In these illustrations, workers are seen blowing smoke into hives while they remove honeycombs. Sealed pots containing honey were later found in the tombs of pharaohs like King Tut.

In the 1860s, Pennsylvanian John Harbison successfully brought beekeeping to the United States West Coast. After being introduced to Harbison Canyon, CA, this market greatly expanded throughout the country. While beekeeping in the U.S. was traditionally practiced for the purpose of harvesting honey, beekeepers now earn a greater part of their income by offering crop pollination services.

Bee Products

As previously noted, bees are responsible for developing a variety of food products, including honey, fruits, and vegetables, but they can also be used to create other products. Beeswax is one such product, and this natural wax is produced by honey bees within the genus Apis. This wax is formed by wax-producing glands in worker bees that use the substance for honeycomb stability.  Once bleached and purified, beeswax can be used to produce pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and food products. Beeswax, which is known to be highly flammable is also used to make candles.

Royal jelly can also be created by honey bees. This substance is a honeybee secretion that is used to provide nutrition to larvae. Some people feel that royal jelly has positive health benefits, so it has been collected and sold within dietary supplements. However, both the FDA and Federal Trade Commission have rejected these claims, and more evidence is needed to determine the potential health benefits to humans.

Bee glue or propolis is also created by honey bees. This resinous mixture is collected from sap flows, tree pods, and other plant sources, and it is used as a sealant for open spaces in beehives. Traditional medicine has used propolis for thousands of years, and has shown some success at treating genital herpes, cold sores, and mouth pain after surgery. Some chewing gum manufacturers use propolis, and the substance can also be used to create car wax or to improve the wood grain in stringed musical instruments.

Bee Pollen

Bee pollen is used to describe the pollen ball that worker honey bees pack into pellets. Foraging bees return to the hive with pollen, where it is passed off to worker bees who pack it into cells. Throughout this process, the pollen is mixed with bee salivary secretions and nectar, and a single female will later lay an egg on top of the pollen.

The exact chemical composition of bee pollen will depend on the plants from which worker bees gather pollen. Therefore, what bee pollen contains will vary depending on the day or bee colony, and no two samples of pollen will be exactly alike. However, the average composition is thought to be between 40% and 60% sugar. Proteins, vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and other diverse components make up the rest of the substance.

Sometimes referred to as ambrosia, bee pollen can be harvested as food for human consumption. Just as bee pollen serves as a major protein source for the hive, it can also provide health benefits to people. Herbalists often tout bee pollen as a treatment for certain medical conditions, including stomach problems, asthma, or alcoholism, but research is limited about these benefits. Bee pollen may be included in skin softening products that can be useful in treating eczema and diaper rash, and some people claim that its use can reduce the side effects of certain cancer treatments.

If you are considering using bee pollen as a supplement, you should first consult with your doctor. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned against using some products containing bee pollen, as they may also include unapproved or adulterated drugs. While bee pollen is typically safe for short-term use, side effects may include an allergic reaction, and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid it entirely.