Why do we need bees?
We need bees. We may take them and other pollinators like butterflies and hoverflies for granted – but they are vital for stable, healthy food supplies. They are the key to the varied, colorful and nutritious diets we need and have come to expect.
Bees are perfectly adapted to pollinate, helping plants grow, breed and produce food. They do so by transferring pollen between flowering plants and so keep the cycle of life turning.
The vast majority of plants we need for food rely on pollination, especially by bees: from almonds and vanilla and apples to squashes. Bees also pollinate around 80% of wildflowers in Europe, so our countryside would be far less interesting and beautiful without them.
But bees are in trouble. There is growing public and political concern at bee decline across the world. This decline is caused by a combination of stresses – from loss of their habitat and food sources to exposure to pesticides and the effects of climate change.
More than ever before, we need to recognise the importance of bees to nature and to our lives. And we need to turn that into action to ensure they don’t just survive but thrive.
We need bees because they’re perfect pollinators
Thanks to bees we can enjoy a range of foods from apples and pears to coffee and vanilla. And if you are wearing cotton, that’s because the cotton plant your threads came from was pollinated.
Bees gather pollen to stock their nests as food for their young. They have special features to collect it – like branched hairs called ‘scopae’ or combs of bristles called pollen baskets on their legs. As bees visit plants seeking food, pollen catches on their bodies and passes between plants, fertilising them – that’s pollination.
Bees are specialists
Many bees have different characteristics that make them suited to pollinate certain plants. For example, the Early bumblebee’s small size and agility allow it to enter plants with drooping flowers such as comfrey. Garden bumblebees are better at pollinating the deep flowers of honeysuckle and foxgloves than most other species because their longer tongue can reach deep inside them.
There is evidence that natural pollination by the right type of bee improves the quality of the crop – from its nutritional value to its shelf life. For example, bumblebees and solitary bees feed from different parts of strawberry flowers. In combination they produce bigger, juicier and more evenly-shaped strawberries.
Bees are important for more than honey
In a world without bees we would probably survive. But our existence would be more precarious and our diets would be dull, poorer and less nutritious. And not just for want of honey.
Even some plants grown to feed to livestock for meat production, such as clover and alfalfa, depend at least partly on bee pollination.
“Loss of pollinators could lead to lower availability of crops and wild plants that provide essential micro-nutrients for human diets, impacting health and nutritional security and risking increased numbers of people suffering from vitamin A, iron and folate deficiency.”
Bees are important to a healthy environment
Bees are a fantastic symbol of nature. That they are in trouble is a sign that our natural environment is not in the good shape it should be.
By keeping the cycle of life turning, bees boost the colour and beauty of our countryside. Some 80% of European wildflowers require insect pollination. Many of them such as foxglove, clovers and vetches rely on bees.
Pollinators allow plants to fruit, set seed and breed. This in turn provides food and habitat for a range of other creatures. So the health of our natural ecosystems is fundamentally linked to the health of our bees and other pollinators.
Maintaining our native flora also depends on healthy pollinator populations. This includes wild flowers such as poppies, cornflowers and bluebells, as well as trees and shrubs. The close relationship between pollinators and the plants they pollinate is evident in the parallel declines seen across the UK and Europe: 76% of plants preferred by bumblebees have declined in recent decades, with 71% seeing contractions in their geographical range.