The Honey Bee Isn’t Holy.

I think it’s pretty clear now. Bees are not just furry buzzers; they are very, very important pollinators.

pollen                                              different colours of pollen inside the hive


They actually receive a surprising amount of attention in the media for an insect.

I have seen articles that basically describe the apocalypse when numbers of honey bees are getting too low. The honeybee is put on a throne;  these heroes are responsible for the welfare of the world. We will starve of deprivation without their magic touch.

But you know what? The honeybee isn’t holy.

She isn’t the one and only salvation. She can’t take that massive burden on her shoulders alone. She needs colleagues.

Butterflies, bumble bees, hoverflies and wild bees are just as important for pollinating crops as honey bees are. If not more important….

Bumblebee-2009-04-19-01 butterfly

These are some conclusions from a study recently published in Science. It wants to shine the light on other pollinators besides honey bees. Research has been done all over the world, and fifty authors have contributed to the publication of their findings.

I would like to talk about some results that came from this study.  Don’t understand me wrong. I don’t want to talk the honey bee down, but I want to provide a bigger perspective on crop pollination. We should watch out for becoming too depended on one insect.

Various ecologists studied a total of 600 fields that grew all sorts of crops (nuts, fruits, seeds) in every continent in the world except for Antarctica.  A lot of their findings are still quite unexplained and mysterious. They looked at the effects of honey bees on pollination, compared to the effects of wild insects. They found that while honey bees are more important for moving pollen around, wild insects are often more important to complete successful pollination – fertilisation of the plant.


How and why is a mystery. Do wild insects pick better pollen? Or do they spread them differently?  One of the ideas is that honeybees have preferences for pollen of specific species or cultivars, while often cross pollination of different varieties is crucial for successful plant fertilisation.

Even more so, it appears that some crops are completely depended on wild insects instead of honey bees. Examples are cacao, fig, passionfruit and vanilla. For as far as researchers have been able to show, honeybees hardly contribute to successful pollination of these crops. These crops are extra vulnerable when agricultural practices expand at the cost of  local vegetation.

Still, (and quite obviously) it turns out that in most cases, crop yields will be higher when both honeybees and wild insects are present; rather than just having only one or the other. So, in the end it’s not a story about “who is more important?” but about “they are all important!”.

And having enough flowers around to attract all these insects is the key. A great example comes from research in South Africa. It compared mango orchards: some of the orchards had incorporated flower patches, others had flower patches at 300 metres distance. It turned out that the fruit trees on the orchards with incorporated flower patches produced on average 1.5 kg more ripe fruits per tree! That’s an incredible difference.

Despite the fact that we need a bunch of different insects, I do understand our focus on honeybees.

I think one of the reasons the honeybee is so popular is because we feel a sense of control over them. They are very convenient insects for humans. We put them in confined boxes, we transport them and locate them in places we think are suitable; we feed them, we treat for pests, we breed queens and select for beneficial genes…

In other words: We are able to contribute to honey bee distribution, housing and to a certain extent we even have some control over their welfare.

Ultimately, the issue is directed back at us. When we feel we support crop pollination by keeping honeybees, the implication is that not only honeybees are heroes, but we become heroes ourselves. 

What is your take on this?


Information derived from a review by Marcel aan de Burg, in NRC Handelsblad, 2/3 March 2013. Photos: Creative Commons Wikipedia 


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