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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Bee's Knees

"How doth the little busy bee improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day from every opening flower."

- Isaac Watts, Against Idleness

This Wednesday finds us smack dab in the middle of National Pollinator Week, a seven-day celebration of pollination.  According to the USDA, a full three-quarters of flowering plants and over a third of our food crops rely on pollinators.  Pollinators come in endless shapes and sizes, from butterflies to giraffes.  They are active by day and by night; among the night-shift are several species of bats, most notably the long-nosed bats which, through their pollination of agave plants, are responsible for tequila. 

In the eyes of most of the world, however, first and foremost among the pollinators is the honeybee.

It surprises many people to realize that the honeybee is not a native of this country.  Originally found in the Old World, it has since spread throughout the globe, with only Antarctica remaining uncolonized.  Its immense popularity among humans isn't just due to its essential pollination duties.  It also produces honey, a food stuff that is incredibly popular among humans and wild animals alike.  Honey has been a dietary staple for millennia; honeycomb found in the tombs of the pharaohs has been sampled by archaeologists, a feat which is only possible because it has no expiration date.

The sweet, unfortunately, comes with the sting, and honeybees are capable of defending their hives vigorously, though the individual bees will die after delivering their sting.  Honeybees are (largely) inoffensive, however, though they are often blamed for stings that are inflicted by their more aggressive look-alike cousins, the wasps.  I put the "largely" in parentheses due to the variations among species, especially the infamous (and exaggerated) Africanized "killer bees" which made their first appearances in South America and have gradually worked their way up north.

Many zoos display beehives, often fronted with glass to allow observation of their inner workings.  This provides an excellent educational opportunity for visitors, as it allows for a peek into some of the most sophisticated social structure of any animal.  Even without this, bees are worthy of as much attention and study as any mega-mammal.  Their long history with human culture, their outsized role on our economies and agriculture, and the fascinating interplay that they have with other species in their ecosystem is extraordinary.    Plus, they need all the help they can get right now.

Beehives in the US have been in decline due to a variety of threats, from pesticides to invasive parasitic mites to loss of food sources.  These threats don't just hurt our honeybee domestics - they also impact the immense host of native pollinators (including several species of wild bees) which our ecosystems depend on.  Lots of attention has been paid to honeybees, which have professional caretakers and amateur hobbyists working on their behalf.  The situation is a lot more precarious for the wild ones - ones that don't form massive hives that make them easy to observe and study and length, and whose absences are more easily missed.

A beekeeper, wearing his protective suit, prepares to install a new hive.

Ways that you can help native pollinators in your backyard are to landscape with the native plants that they feed on and to limit your use of pesticides.  Bees have given us so much benefit over the past several millennia.  The least we can do is try to return the favor.

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