The Importance of Apis mellifera (Honeybees) to Humans

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The western or European honey bee, scientific name Apis mellifera, is well-known for playing a vital role in pollinating the commercial crops from which many humans get the bulk of their caloric intake. Specifically, honey bees are responsible for pollinating flowers and certain simple fruits, bushes, and shrubs, thus enabling these plants to reproduce and bear fruit. Since many of the fruits most commonly eaten as part of a modern Western diet today, such as apples, citrus fruit, berries, and more, rely on honey bees for pollination, the sudden loss of all honey bees would most likely lead to a substantial shift in human behavior. The western honey bee, in particular, is the primary pollinator of the aforementioned crops, though there are other species, and interestingly, though honey bees are not native to the Americas, this was one of the first species introduced (Sheppard 617). This, perhaps, can be supposed to be the primary reason for its predominance over other species today. Indeed, the species is quite widespread throughout the United States of America, as well as Europe, of course (Ruttner 22). The extensive range of the western honey bee is part of what makes it such a lynchpin of crop pollination. Given that Apis mellifera is so important to the agriculture of one of the most powerful nations on Earth, it might be logical to wonder what alternatives are available to the human reliance on this particular species and what threats might face the species. One such threat is the emittance of diesel fuel exhaust. First, however, a brief overview of the importance of the Western honey bee to humans in more general terms is in order.

An overview of the ways in which the Western honey bee is important to humans must cover its financial and historical impacts as well as the responses to potential crises. As far as economic concerns are involved, some research finds that “The total economic value of pollination worldwide amounted to €153 billion, which represented 9.5% of the value of the world agricultural production used for human food in 2005” (Gallai, Salles, Settele, & Vaissière, 2009, 810). These are dramatic numbers indeed and suggest that the loss of the Western honey bee could have dire consequences for the financial states of multiple industries. Indeed, as some put it, “Concerns have been raised that invertebrate pollinators of crops and wild plants are in decline as a result of modern agricultural practices, habitat degradation, and introduced pests and diseases” (Ghazoul, 2005, 367). Though these worries may or may not be unfounded, the very fact that they exist implicitly draws attention to the Western honey bee’s importance to humans; if the bees were of no consequence, this issue would be receiving much less attention. In addition, historically speaking, this concern over the Western honey bee species in particular, out of the bees more generally mentioned before is far from new. It turns out that the Western honey bee owes much of its current habitat to historical deliberate human movement of bees: “The European honey bee, Apis mellifera L., is the most commonly managed bee in the world . . . Most of the European honey bee’s range expansion has been the result of deliberate human transport” (VanEngelsdorp & Meixner, 2010, S80). This suggests that humans have valued the Western honey bee highly enough to make room for taking colonies with human parties as they traveled the globe, despite the obvious inconveniences of doing so. However, in the modern-day, perhaps an even more dramatic showing of how highly people value the Western honey bee is manifesting in the race to find alternatives to the possibly ailing species.

Even in isolation of any other factors, protecting Apis mellifera in order both to avoid altering a significant portion of the Western diet and to ensure that ecosystems remain intact is obviously a task with great merit. Though the particular role of Apis mellifera in both its native ecosystems and the adopted parts of its range is a complex issue, the concern over crops is relatively easy to explore. Whether any particular honey bee might step in for Apis mellifera ecologically is questionable, but at least commercially, it seems that agriculture would indeed be able to weather the loss of the western honey bee, though not without being affected. For example, as one examination of the alternatives put it: “The pollination effectiveness of the commercially reared bumblebee Bombus impatiens Cresson, was compared . . . to the honey bee, Apis mellifera L., for lowbush blueberry, Vaccinium angustifolium Ait. A preliminary study indicated that B. impatiens had potential as an alternative pollinator” (Stubbs and Drummond 609). This is heartening news, though it by no means proves that coping without Apis mellifera would be easy. In addition, the possibility of using wild bees has been explored: “One of the values of biodiversity is that it may provide ‘biological insurance’ . . . [We] investigated whether the loss of a domesticated pollinator (the honey bee) could be compensated for by native, wild bee species” (Winfree et al. 1105). The idea of “biological insurance” is a vital one to the study of Apis mellifera, as shall be seen in greater detail subsequently. The same study gave results that suggest wild bees may indeed be adequate, saying, “Simulation results predict that native bees alone provide sufficient pollination at > 90% of the farms studied . . . We predict that in our region native bees will buffer potential declines in agricultural production because of honey bee losses” (Winfree et al. 1105). It is good to know that in spite of how important the western honey bee is to humans, there are indeed alternatives. That is particularly the case given the looming specter of an unexplained phenomenon striking Apis mellifera colonies across a widespread geographical area.

Colony collapse disorder is a name given to the disconcerting unexplained disappearance of honey bee colonies. Much has been written about the topic in the last few years. This disorder appears to have begun striking western honey bee colonies in Europe and the East Coast of the United States of America beginning in 2006 (Ellins, Evans, and Pettis 134). That a wave of research appears to have been sparked off by this news is evidence of how impactful the fall of Apis mellifera might be. Others have summarized the plight of these bees thus: “Over the last two winters, there have been large-scale, unexplained losses of managed honey bee (Apis mellifera L.) colonies in the United States. In the absence of a known cause, this syndrome was named Colony Collapse Disorder . . . ” (Evans et al. e6481). The keywords and phrases to note here are “unexplained” and “the absence of a known cause” because the phenomenon still remains a mystery to this day. Ultimately, in order for humans to continue to rely on Apis mellifera, the quandary of what causes colony collapse disorder will have to be solved, and soon.

Works Cited

Ellis, James D., Jay D. Evans, and Jeff Pettis. "Colony losses, managed colony population decline, and Colony Collapse Disorder in the United States." Journal of Apicultural Research 49.1 (2010): 134-136.

Evans, Jay D., et al. "Colony collapse disorder: A descriptive study." PloS one 4.8 (2009): e6481.

Gallai, N., Salles, J.-M., Settele, J., & Vaissière, B. E. (2009). Economic valuation of the vulnerability of world agriculture confronted with pollinator decline. Ecological Economics, 68, 810-821.

Ghazoul, J. (2005). Buzziness as usual? Questioning the global pollination crisis. TRENDS in Ecology and Evolution, 20(7), 367-373.

Ruttner, Friedrich. Biogeography and taxonomy of honeybees. Springer-Verlag, 1988.

Sheppard, W. S. "A history of the introduction of honey bee races into the United-States." American Bee Journal 129.9 (1989): 617-619.

Stubbs, Constance S., and Francis A. Drummond. "Bombus impatiens (Hymenoptera: Apidae): An alternative to Apis mellifera (Hymenoptera: Apidae) for lowbush blueberry pollination." Journal of Economic Entomology 94.3 (2001): 609-616.

VanEngelsdorp, D., & Meixner, M. D. (2010). A historical review of managed honey bee populations in Europe and the United States and the factors that may affect them. Journal of Invertebrate Pathology, 103, S80-S95.

Winfree, Rachael, et al. "Native bees provide insurance against ongoing honey bee losses." Ecology Letters 10.11 (2007): 1105-1113.