bee: Importance of Bees

Bees are of inestimable value as agents of cross-pollination (see pollination), and many plants are entirely dependent on particular kinds of bees for their reproduction (such as red clover, which is pollinated by the bumblebee, and many orchids). In many cases the use of insecticides for agricultural pest control has had the unwelcome side effect of killing the bees necessary for maintaining the crop. Such environmental stresses plus several species of parasitic mites devastated honeybee populations in the United States beginning in the 1980s, making it necessary for farmers to rent bees from keepers in order to get their crops pollinated and greatly affecting the pollination of plants in the wild.

In 2006, commercial honeybee hives first suffered from colony collapse disorder, which, for unclear reasons, left many bee boxes empty of bees after overwintering. Dead bees from affected colonies have since been found to be infected with viruses and other pathogens that, acting synergistically, may be the cause. Although colony collapse disorder peaked in 2007 and has subsided, commercial honeybee hives continue to suffer significantly from the effects of disease and pesticides.

The increasing expense of using honeybees to pollinate agricultural crops has led to the growing use of such alternative species as bumblebees and blue orchard mason bees as well as wild bees as supplemental or primary pollinators. The successful use of wild bees as agricultural pollinators typically requires providing or ensuring access to alternative food sources before and after the crop flowers and limiting practices, such as the use of pesticides, that might kill wild bees.

Bee venom has been found to have medicinal properties. Toasted honeybees are eaten in some parts of the world.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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