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Spend any amount of time outdoors and it will not be long before the buzzing of bees is heard. At such times, it might be best to clear the area lest the insects unleash their stingers. Yet although the stings of bees can be painful, their stingers are not their most important feature. Bees, in fact, are critical to the ecosystem, providing pollination to plants that is vital for plant survival. The humble bee, in fact, is one of the most important insects for the health of the entire planet.
How Pollen Helps Flowers and Plants
Pollen is produced by flowers and other plants as a means of reproduction. Plants that cannot self-pollinate must receive pollen from other plants in order to produce seeds and otherwise reproduce, for the reproductive cells for many flowers and plants make up pollen, the dust produced by flowers. As plants are cross-pollinated, receiving in their flowers pollen from other plants, the plant reproductive cycle is able to continue. Once pollination occurs, the plant is able to produce seeds that can then grow into new plants and flowers.
How Bees Use Pollen
Some pollen is wind-born and carried through the air to other plants. Some plants are self-pollinators, producing both sets of reproductive cells in the same flower such that cross-pollination is not necessary. Many plants, however, rely on insects and other animals such as bats to carry pollen from one flower to another. Bees are among the most significant animal pollinators in nature. These insects are attracted to flowers because flower nectar and pollen provide food for them. Pollen is a key source of protein and vitamins, so when bees fly from flower to flower, they collect pollen and bring it back to the hive. There, they will eat the pollen themselves and distribute it to other members of the bee colony. In the meantime, as they travel from plant to plant, some of the pollen they are carrying will fall off onto other flowers as they make their journey. Thus, in collecting pollen for their own consumption, bees end up causing pollination for many plants and flowers.
Bees and Agriculture
Self-pollinating plants and plants that are pollinated by wind-born pollen do not require the assistance of bees for pollination and reproduction. But not every plant can self-pollinate or rely on the wind to bring it the pollen it needs. Several flowers and plants require pollinators such as bees, with fruit-bearing flowers and plants particularly reliant on such insects. Strawberries, apples, blueberries, and several other fruit plants require bees to guarantee their pollination, which makes bees especially key for modern agriculture. In the United States, for example, bees add about $15 billion dollars or so of value to farmers every year because their work as pollinators ensures the survival of many crops.
The History of Beekeeping
For millennia, farmers have recognized the importance of bees for their production of honey and for producing abundant crop yields. Thus, human beings have long practiced the art of beekeeping, or keeping and tending colonies of bees to help their crops and to acquire honey, beeswax, and other natural materials. Beekeeping goes back as far as 13,000 B.C. At that time, Egyptians used baskets and other materials as homes for bee colonies so that they could help guarantee the pollination of their crops. In North America, bees had to be brought in from Europe, as they are not native to the North American continent. Bees were brought over during the 1600s, and they have more or less thrived in North America ever since. Honeybees are important for agriculture, but other varieties of bees also play a key part in pollination.
Modern Decline in Bee Populations
Given the importance of bees for pollination and crop yields, farmers are understandably alarmed when they see a dramatic decline in the bee population. North American farmers began seeing such a decline in the early 21st century. It has not yet been determined what is causing the decline in bee population and the attendant phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder that results in colonies that have a queen but no adult bees. Pesticides are almost certainly one of the factors causing bee death, though bacteria and viral disease may be playing a part as well.
Written By Ava Rose.