Bees are viewed by many people as annoying pests that provide little value besides honey. Those who work in the agriculture industry, however, know that bees are a critical part of the growing process. The power of bees in agriculture is hard to overstate.
The honeybee and bumblebee are probably the two most familiar types of bee, but there are actually hundreds of known types of bees. The various types of bees differ in a number of important ways, including temperament and behavior, but different bee species also have different roles that they play within agriculture, as AgWeb reports.
Pollen and Production
Most notably, bees are essential to agriculture because of their role as pollinators. In fact, bees are credited as being responsible for about 80 percent of all crop pollinations in the U.S. Many agricultural crops will only produce food yields if they have been pollinated, while pollination by bees is known to produce higher yields in a number of other food crops. Without bees to pollinate, a large number of food crops that we rely on would be effectively decimated.
Bees aid in more than just food crop pollination, however. In addition to their starring role in pollinating agricultural crops, bees are also responsible for pollinating many non-crop, native plants. Some of these native plants serve as vital forage and habitat for many species of wildlife. Other plants, like cotton, are major business crops and also rely on the work of the diligent bee to produce high yields.
What Exactly Is Pollination
Pollination is the process of moving grains of pollen from the male germ cell to the female reproductive system in a seed plant, as The Nature Conservancy outlines. While some of this will occur naturally in the absence of a robust bee population thanks to natural winds and other insects, bees are the most diligent dating service, connecting these male and female components of plants to ensure that crops are fruitful.
The pollination process is essential for plants to reproduce and to produce food. Pollinators like bees play an integral role in the pollination process by moving pollen between flowers to allow fertilization. Bees are also especially vital for plants where male and female flowers mature at different times. The Nature Conservancy also notes that some plants, including peaches, avocados and almonds, need insects like bees and others to transfer pollen from plant to plant.
Bees are very efficient pollinators, and are more effective at this role than other winged insects. One reason that honeybees are so efficient at pollination is “floral fidelity,” says AgWeb. This refers to the habit of honeybees to focus on only one type of flower at a time, and thus to gather and move pollen between one species of plant, even though the honeybees are actually attracted to a wide variety of flowers.
It can be argued that bees are just as important to ensuring healthy and bountiful plants as is irrigation or fertilization. After all, perfectly timed and applied water or fertilizer will still not produce a crop without pollination.
Decline in Bees, but Rising Demand
There has been an increase in demand for pollination services during recent years, reports the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics in a report. Agricultural producers, recognizing the value that pollinators provide, are reacting to the long-term decline in bee populations. This has meant that a market for raising and transplanting colonies has been on the rise. Honeybees are well-suited to adapting, and often the colonies can be moved to new locations based on need.
The ongoing decline in honeybee populations has received plenty of attention, and for good reason. As recently as the 1970s, there were an estimated four million honeybee colonies. The number of colonies has since dropped to only about 2.5 million, according to figures reported by The Nature Conservancy.
Scientists have taken to calling the bee decline “Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD). Despite the official name, researchers remain uncertain about the cause of the decline in healthy bee populations. In cases of Colony Collapse Disorder, the worker bees abandon the colony altogether, reports the EPA. While several possible threats to bees have been identified, many researchers believe that it is not a singular root problem but the combination of these multiple threats may ultimately be what is causing the loss of bee colonies. These threats include loss of habitat, pesticide use, and mite infestations or fungal diseases.
The Future of Bees
One option for pollination if honeybee colonies continue to decline may be to use native bees. According to a 2011 report from Cornell, North America is home to about 3,500 species of native bees (also sometimes referred to as solitary bees or pollen bees). While native bees are not typically used for crop pollination, they may offer some benefits over honeybees like faster flight and a tendency to focus more intensely on one crop. The report also notes that these native species may actually be better pollinators than honeybees, making them an appealing alternative.
Still, a number of native bee species are also showing signs of decline. Pesticide usage and habitat destruction are believed to be responsible for these declines in native bee populations. That has also led to scientists – or perhaps more appropriately, roboticists – to work on technological alternatives. As NPR recently reported, a researcher at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan has been working on a hypothetical tiny drone that could work to perform some of the same work. Featuring small bristles of hair and a gel to mimic the collection of pollen in the tiny hairs on bees, these drones could serve as a technological solution to a biological problem in the none-too-distance future.
Bees play an incredibly valuable role in agriculture, but it takes more than bees to run an agricultural operation. L&M Manufacturing is your source for innovative tools and equipment to handle the work that the bees do not. Shop our inventory online now or call us at 800-676-DRIP to learn more.