About 35 percent of our food and 75 percent of our flowering plants depend on pollinators like bees, butterflies and beetles. More than 315 species of wild bees in Florida pollinate crops and landscapes. Native bumble bees (among others) pollinate native plants, which in turn produce flowers and seeds and berries that feed songbirds, wildlife and people. Like the European honey bee, they too have declined over the past decade.
Why care about bees?
Bees are the most important pollinator group. As female bees forage, pollen grains collect on their body hairs, and transfer from the male part of the plant (the anther) to the female part of the plant (the stigma) on the same plant, as well as hundreds of plants on each foray. Over 100 crops in the United States require pollination, including our Florida blueberries, cucumbers, watermelons and squash.
A honey bee extracts pollen from Fireweed
The social life of bees
Between 300-400 of the 20,000 species of bees are highly social (eusocial). A colony of honey bees contains a queen responsible for reproduction, female worker bees and male drones. Young worker bees perform duties within the hive (e.g., cleaning and caregiving) and when they age, they venture outside: exploring, foraging and defending the colony. Forager bees communicate where the pollen is through a dance.
A honey bee carries pollen in a bee basket on her leg
The plight of the honey bee
Honey bees are not native; the first settlers brought them from Europe. Because honey bees are easier to manage and more prolific, they are used commercially to pollinate our nation’s crops.
Last winter in Florida, beekeepers lost more than 40% of their hives. Colony loss is likely a combination of stresses on bees, including mites, diseases, pesticides, and loss of native habitat. Neonicotinoids are a widely used systemic pesticide. In January 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that Neonicotinoids are harmful to bees and will not approve new products containing Neonicotinoids. However, products containing Neonicotinoids continue to be sold here, although they are banned in Europe. The loss of bees may signal environmental problems.
A honey bee colony pollinates crops
Honey bees die when they sting (except for the queen), although wasps can sting multiple times. Bees rarely sting, and will happily co-exist with you while producing beauty in gardens and bounty in crops. Apitherapists use bee venom as an alternative treatment for arthritis, multiple sclerosis and Lyme disease.
A few people (one or two out of 1,000) are allergic to bee stings and inject epinephrine (adrenaline) if stung. African honey bees entered Florida over 15 years ago, and they are more defensive than other bees. So, if you find a feral hive call a registered beekeeper through Suncoast Beekeepers Association to remove it.
In some cultures, bees are revered, not feared. Bees symbolize energy, abundance and prosperity. You can “bee-friendly” by planting native wildflowers and keeping your garden pesticide-free. Consider becoming a beekeeper. Florida has a growing population of beekeepers, and the University of Florida has great resources available, including Dr. James Ellis and Dr. Joshua Campbell.
A bumble bee pollinates Porterweed, a native plant