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Bee Pollination-Why Honey Bees Matter

Honey bee pollination is a major force in modern agriculture. Well known as a honey producer, honey is not this bee’s biggest claim to fame. Affecting billions of dollars of revenue, or crop yield, if this bee disappears – your diet with change significantly. You may be surprised to learn the role bees play as pollinators.

Honey bee gathering pollen from red flower image.

Facts About Honey Bee Pollination

Think of honey and you think of bees. It’s as simple as that. Honey bees are well known for honey production . And, let’s face it, how bees produce honey is a pretty darn impressive feat.

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But, do you have any idea how important honey bee pollination is to modern agriculture? We are talking increased crop yields worth billions of dollars.

Impact of Bee Pollination

What is pollination? Pollination occurs when pollen is transferred from the female parts of a flower to the male parts.

Insects, including honey bees, aid in pollination by moving small grains of pollen from flower to flower. Pollen is often moved to flowers on another plant of the same variety.   

The result of pollination is the formation of a fruit or seed. Pollinated plants produce more fruit/seed resulting in a much larger yield. 

Plants Use Nectar to Attract Honey Bees

Flowering plants requiring “animal/insect” pollination produce heavy sticky particles of pollen.  This pollen is too heavy to move in the wind.

These plants have larger flowers and most produce a sweet liquid known as nectarHoney bees and other pollinators visit the flowers to harvest the sweet food.

Honey bee pollinating a fruit tree honey bee pollination foods that depend of bees image.

Honey Bees Move Pollen Accidentally

The fuzzy, hairy little bodies of our worker bees collect pollen accidentally. Yes, while they are busy looking for sweet nectar, some of the pollen particles will adhere to the tiny hairs on their bodies.

At the next flower, perhaps some pollen drops off and pollen from that blossom is added to the bee hairs.  This is cross pollination.

Field of sun flowers ready for pollination by bees image.
A large field with only one nectar source is not best for pollinators. Honey bee pollinators need a diverse food supply.

Sometimes, bee visit flowers just to collect the nutritious pollen too. It provides a good protein source for the bees. Honey bees use pollen to feed baby bees.  No pollen – no babies.

Most Plants are Not Pollinated by Bees

Contrary to the romantic idea – honey bees are not responsible for pollination of most of the world’s food sources.

Large amounts of dry light-weight pollen is produced by some plants. The wind carries the small dry particles of pollen to receptive flowers.

Wind pollinated plants do not have to attract pollinators. These include: wheat, corn, rice, rye, barley and oats.  Pines, firs, spruces and many hardwoods trees are also pollinated in this manner.

Honey bees and other pollinators may sometimes gather this pollen. However, it is not their primary protein source.

Backyard Beehives Help Increase Bee Pollination

Backyard beekeepers across the country enjoy raising bees in a few hives. These small bee yards with 2, 4, or 10 hives in the backyard might be kept in hopes of producing honey.

Having beehives around can bring other benefits too. It is not uncommon for new beekeepers with a small vegetable garden or small orchard to notice an increase in crop yield.

In fact, other homeowners in your neighborhood may experience the same. The beekeeper may be helping everyone in the area have more productive gardens and orchards.

Bees do a good job of finding food on their own. But many people love to offer them extra flowers to work.

image of pollinator ebook to help grow your bee garden

In my book, Flowers for Your Honeybee Garden, I talk about choosing the best plants to help feed hungry bees!

Plants that Rely on Bee Pollination

These plants rely on pollination from insects such as bees (not just honey bees) in order to produce a good crop. Many of them are foods that are a regular part of our diet and some are large commercial crops.

  • okra
  • kiwifruit
  • cashew
  • watermelon
  • cantaloupe
  • cucumber
  • squash
  • pumpkin
  • apple
  • strawberry
  • and many others

Honey Bee Pollination in Modern Agriculture

Honey bees contribute over $20 billion a year to US agricultural efforts. We enjoy apples,  watermelon, cucumbers, squash and other fruits because of insect and/or bee pollination.

But honey bees don’t do all the work. Native pollinators, (Bees, Birds, Bats etc.) also play a role in pollination. It is easy to provide a house for Mason Bees are another popular pollinator for the home gardener.

Beehives Favorites of Agriculture Due to Portability

It is easy to move large honey bee colonies across country -moving bees from one state to another-following the crop bloom. These hives contains thousands of workers ready to fly.

Honey bee colonies with their large populations do their jobs and return to the hive every night. Other insects do not live in such large colonies that make the effort worthwhile.

Agriculture is Not Always Good for Bees

Modern agriculture often practices mono-crop systems.  They have large fields of just one type of plant such as almonds, sunflowers or blueberries.

Honey bees (like us) need variety in their diet instead of eating the same thing for weeks on end. This lack of a diverse food source can cause unhealthy bees.

Thousands of bee hives are easily trucked across the US each year. But, this moving is stressful for the colony (that has to remain locked up in the box during the trip). Stress causes health problems in bees as well as humans.

Commercial beekeepers who use honey bees for pollination often feed supplements to their bees.  This can help replace lacking nutrients in the diet of the honey bees.

Infographic chart on bee pollination facts image.

Farming Changes to Help Honey Bees

Most crops will produce a larger harvest with proper pollination.  However, some crops (such as Almonds) depend 100% on bee pollination.

Declining honey bee populations have caused a shortage of hives for almond pollination.

As researchers learn more about honey bee health, farmers are looking for more ways to help bees.  These practices are good for the bees and the farmers too.

  • Restricting pesticide use to a minimum and proper application techniques can protect bee colonies.
  • Instead of having acres of the same crops, farmers are planting cover crops in between the rows.  This adds diversity to the bee diet.  

How Homeowners Help Bees

It is not only large farmers that can help promote healthier honey bees. Homeowners and small scale beekeepers can help the honey bees by planting a variety of flowers.

Chose a wide variety of plant types that bloom over a long season.  Try to include many bee friendly flowers that provide nectar, pollen or both over the Summer months.

Restrict the use of pesticides and herbicides in your gardens and on your lawns. Use the least toxic formula and read the label to learn the best application times.

Final Thoughts on Honey Bee Pollination

All bees are important. Both native bees, honey bees, butterflies and other pollinators have a role to play. They are all at risk. Working together we can make the world a better place for all pollinators.

By doing so, hopefully we can continue to enjoy the benefits of honey bee pollination for many years to come.

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