Why are Bees important?
We should be in no doubt that bees are some of the hardest working and important creatures on the planet. We owe a lot to this amazing, yet still often under-appreciated, little animal.
Around the world, there are over 25,000 different types of bee species! This huge number is divided into over 4,000 different types of bees, which can be further divided into the nine families of bees. The Apidae family is perhaps the most well-known family, that contains at least 5,700 different species of bee, including the honeybee and bumblebee we are all familiar with here in the UK.
But why are bees so important?
Bees are crucial for pollination
Pollination is the word we use for how plants reproduce. Simply put, pollination is when the male part of the flower (called the stamen) meets the female part of another flower (the pistil).
Plants cannot walk around to do this themselves but without this process, a plant’s seed and fruit would not be produced. While some plants can pollinate themselves or rely on the wind to do it, many plants rely on animals to assist with this pollination process and bees are an especially important part of that process.
It’s no doubt that when people start to think about why bees are important, being pollinators is the first thing many people think of. And with good reason! Bees are one of the most effective pollinators in the world. Part of this is because bees often tend to focus on pollinating one species of plant at a time. Because they often visit one type of flower for a whole outing a much higher level of pollination is achieved overall, as all the plants are getting a more even distribution of pollen from the same species. Bumblebees are particularly good at pollinating due to their large size which makes them very effective at dispersing pollen across the flowers and fruits they visit.
Pollination is critical for food production
Our own lives and the world as a whole would be a very different place if bees no longer existed. Bees are responsible for pollinating almost 20% of all flowering plant species worldwide and approximately 400 different agricultural types of plant that we use as food sources.
To put that in perspective, bees are responsible for pollinating around a third of everything we eat!
If bees stopped pollinating our agricultural goods, we would be in serious danger of losing all production of crops such as:
- and cherries; to name just a small fraction!
Even just a reduction in bee numbers could cause these products to become rare and therefore more expensive.
It's not an exaggeration to say that we rely on the pollination that bees do to sustain the food system of today. In the UK alone it would cost billions of pounds a year to hire people to do the work bees do pollinating our crops. Without bees, many of our favourite foods would simply just not be available, or much more expensive if they were.
And it's not only food crops that rely on bee pollination either. Crops like cotton, that many of our clothes are made from, are also pollinated by bees. So without bees, we'd also have no cotton clothes!
Bees aren't the only pollinators in the world, others such as butterflies, ants, birds and beetles all play their part, but none of these can replace the bee if it were to disappear.
Bees are simply one of the most efficient pollinators and they are excellent at what they do. The pollination of plants is not only important to us but also to the wild animals that also feed on the fruits and berries that they rely on for a continuous and sustainable food source.
Bees are needed for a sustainable ecosystem
Bees aren’t only important for pollinating food crops, they also are extremely important for our natural ecosystem. Our countryside would be far less impressive without bees, they pollinate around 80% of all European wild flowers including poppies, bluebells, and even shrubs and trees! Some plants such as clovers, foxglove and vetches almost solely rely on bees for their pollination.
And it’s not just the well-known bumblebee and honeybees that are important, as the UK’s many bee species are very well adapted to certain plants, being crucial to our varied and beautiful wild flowers.
The Early bumblebee (named due to being one of the earliest bees to emerge in spring) is a small and agile bee which allows it to easily enter more drooping flowers like comfrey; Garden bumblebees have longer tongues which are more suited to pollinating foxgloves and honeysuckle, plants with deep flowers they can easily reach into with these longer tongues.
It has been shown that plants pollinated by a more suited species of bee end up healthier and with more bountiful fruits. Apple blossoms can be pollinated by any bee, but the Red mason bee is one of the most effective. Compared to honeybees they can be up to 120 times more efficient, which is extremely beneficial to the apple tree and farmers alike.
Our natural flora is heavily reliant on bees- 76% of plants that are favoured by bumblebees have seen a decline alongside the bumblebees they need for pollination. This is crucial as not only does this mean a loss of natural landscapes but also the habitats many other animals need to survive.
Bees aren’t just important to our many wild plants and flowers, they can also be a meal for some of our wild animals. Despite predating on bees, these animals are not a cause for concern in the bees declining numbers, as these species have coexisted for thousands of years in nature. The most well known are the bee-eaters, a group of birds in the Meropidae family which contains twenty seven species. While most are found in Asia and African, some are found within Europe. The European bee-eater has been spotted in the UK several times, including to nest. These birds can spot a bee from up to 60 metres away, with bees making up an average of 70% of their diet. Not only specialised bee eating birds consume bees, other species such as Great tits and Robins have also been known to eat them. Badgers are another large predator of bees, using their strong claws to break into the bees’ hives. It’s not just honey the badgers enjoy, but also the bee young as well!
As you can see, bees aren’t just the producers of our honey, they provide a vital role of our planet's ecosystem and the well-being of bees can be a direct indicator of how healthy our overall environment is. A declining bee population is a sign that something is wrong. We can all help to keep bee numbers healthy by sowing a packet of our bee friendly flower seeds in your garden or window box, this can can play an important role in the survival of these very important creatures.