The UK’s rarest bumblebee, the shrill carder, is on the rise again. After a decade of dwindling numbers, the endangered species has made a comeback. But what is so important about bees?
How long have we been interested in bees?
Humans have co-existed with bees for millennia. Forty-thousand years ago, early man used beeswax to make spears. Honey, with its natural sweetness and gorgeous, thick texture, made it an important resource for humans when sugar was unusual. Palaeolithic man collected it from wild bees, applying methods beekeepers still use today, like smoking the hives to relax the bees. Over time, we learned to farm bees deliberately and, by 970BC, people were building apiaries with hundreds of hives.
What goes on inside a beehive?
Honeybees are social insects living in huge colonies of around 80,000 bees. The members of these hives are divided into three types. There is the queen, who lays all the eggs for the next generation. Worker bees are all female, responsible for sourcing food, while male bees are known as drones. Drones never leave the hive, and their sole purpose is to mate with the queen.
Worker bees find a suitable spot for a hive, build it, protect it, and keep it clean. They also collect nectar from plants and use it to make honey to feed the colony.
How is honey made?
A worker bee leaves the hive in search of a good food source. When successful, she draws in nectar from the flower using her proboscis. Afterwards, she performs a waggle dance to let other foragers know she has found good food. Most workers visit more than 100 flowers on one trip, storing the nectar in a special stomach.
Back at the hive, workers pass nectar around, chewing and regurgitating it to break the sucrose into simple sugars. At this stage, the bees have made watered-down honey. They pour it into the honeycomb and beat their wings to dehydrate it, removing 50% of the water. The final product is the thick, sweet substance we know so well. Bees cap it with wax to preserve it.
Is it all about honey?
No. In fact, the majority of bees do not even make it. Social hive bees make up only 5% of the world’s bees. Solitary bumblebees just collect enough nectar to feed themselves.
But all bees act as pollinators. While visiting flowers, they brush against the stamens and pollen sticks to their bodies. Moving on to the next plant, the same happens and, in exchange, pollen rubs off the bees onto the stigma.
Pollination means fertilisation is possible and plants can develop. Butterflies, hummingbirds, midge, and even bats also perform this vital task, but bees are the most important pollinators. They are responsible for 90% of wild plants, as well as a third of all fruit, vegetables, and cereals on the planet. Without them, we wouldn’t just miss honey, we probably wouldn’t have enough food.
What’s going wrong?
Global numbers of bees are falling fast. The bees are dying out for reasons that include climate crisis, disease, and chemicals used in farming. One in three bees in the UK has vanished over the past 10 years, and a quarter of bees in Europe are at risk of becoming extinct. In some regions, 90% of bees have died out; in some parts of China, farmers have to pollinate their crops by hand because there aren’t enough bees for the job.
What can we do to help?
Luckily, there are things we can do to save these important insects. The shrill carder bee has made a comeback simply due to a special bee meadow grown by the National Trust. Many people have done the same, growing bee-friendly plants to encourage the insects into their gardens. Bees love the purple flowers of lavender and fuchsias, as well as fresh herbs like sage, mint, and chives. Meanwhile, farmers in Europe have been banned from spraying some harmful pesticides, while the number of individuals keeping bees – even in cities – is rising.
- Are bees the most valuable species on Earth?
- Bees need access to fresh water. Make a bee bath at home by putting stones or pebbles in a bowl or bucket, filling it with a little water, and leaving it outside. Remember to refresh the water regularly, and count how many bees you see.
- An early part of the Stone Age, when humans used basic stone implements.
- A manmade collection of beehives. Early apiaries were in large caves.
- A long, straw-like tongue used to suck nectar easily from plants.
- Waggle dance
- A figure-of-eight movement that bees perform to let each other know when they have found a spot for a hive or a good source of nectar.
- Bringing up food into the mouth from the stomach, used by some birds to feed their chicks.
- A complex sugar made up of fructose and glucose. Bees break it down into these simple building blocks.
- Creatures that transfer pollen between flowering plants of the same type. The pollen fertilises egg cells to make seeds.
- The male reproductive organs of a plant that produce pollen.
- Part of the female reproductive organ in a plant. It is sticky, so pollen is sure to attach when it rubs off the bee’s body.
- Urban beekeepers have hives on rooftops and balconies, producing their own honey in the city.