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The World of Bees: Keepers of our Ecosystem

Updated: Dec 21, 2023


Many might consider bees as pesky, annoying pests that we swat away more often than not. However, these hardworking, elemental pollinators are a keystone species, crucial for the health of our environment, vital for our agriculture, and critical for our own health. So much so that the UN designated May 20th as World Bee Day to raise awareness of the importance of these insects, their contribution to pollination as a fundamental process for the survival of our ecosystem, and the threats they face. Sadly, bees and other pollinators such as butterflies and hummingbirds, are faced with extinction due to habitat loss and other human activities. Did you know that the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee is critically listed on the Endangered Species List? Learn more about bees and how they work so hard for us.


Bees
The hardworking bee. Photo: Unsplash/Jenna Lee

Bees and Pollination

Bees are very well known for their bestowment of essential high-quality foods, like honey and pollen, as well as for providing key ingredients such as beeswax for healthcare and medicinal products. However, the paramount contribution of bees is their act of pollination, with almost 90% of wild flowering plants, 75% of the world’s food crops, and 35% of global agricultural land depending on this necessary process for survival, making bees a keystone species. Thus, not only do bees and their expert pollination process supply us with high-quality food, natural pest control, and an abundance of crops, they also conserve the biodiversity of our ecosystem. All of this leads to an income for farmers, food for the ever-growing population, and a sustainable, ecological balance in nature owing to genetic and biotic diversity. This biodiversity is highly important for creating seeds and fruits that in turn become the food for other animals like bears and birds.



Bee Pollination
Pollination of bees, a fundamental process for the ecosystem. Photo: Unsplash/Didssph
 

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Bees: Guardians of the Earth

Along with the indispensable act of pollination, bees are also considered a bioindicator of the environment, meaning that their presence or absence signifies how healthy the environment is. By carefully studying the vigor and well-being of bees, we can monitor the status of the earth and implement strategies to improve its vitality.

Bee Bioindicator
Bees, bioindicators of the Earth. Photo: Bill Nino

Rusty Patched Bumble Bee

Bombus affinis

In 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee on the Endangered Species List, primarily due to habitat loss, disease, pesticides, and climate change. These incredible insects are a social species, found in colonies consisting of one queen and as many as 1,000 workers and living primarily in grasslands and prairies, woodlands and pastures. Rusty Patched Bumble Bees are characterized by entirely black heads, with males and worker bees having a rust-colored patch on the center of their backs. Queens are the largest bees and actually do not have the patch, although they are still referred to by the name. Similar to other bees, these creatures’ feeding habits consist of gathering pollen and nectar from a variety of flowering plants in spring, then go into hibernation in the colder months. Unlike honey bees, these bumble bees are considered much more effective pollinators because of their “buzz pollination” tactic, in which they vibrate their flight muscles while clasping a flower, simultaneously freeing pollen that would otherwise be inaccessible. Did you know that bumble bees are the only insects that can pollinate tomatoes?

Rusty Patched Bumble Bee
Rusty Patched Bumble Bee. Photo: fws.org

Threats

Currently, bees are under threat and in particular, the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee population has declined in the last two decades by 87%. Some reasons include increases in farm size and advancements in farming technologies that have led to more use of pesticides and loss of biotic diversity. Pathogens also play a role in diminishing the existence of bees; for example, a pathogen called Nosema bombi, affects the reproductive health of bumble bees. The most critical threat to bumble bees is climate change. Due to rising temperatures, bees stop gathering pollen and instead divert their energy to fan their colony and keep it cool, which leads to fatal bumblebee populations and dwindled pollination efforts. The good news is, there are several notable conservation groups who are dedicated to preserving and protecting the world of bees, including Planet Bee Foundation, Defenders of Wildlife, Xerces Society, and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.



Did You Know?

According to the Fish & Wildlife Service, the economic value of pollination services provided by native insects (mostly bees) is estimated at $3 billion per year in the United States (fws.org).


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