Bees pollinate a large number of plants, enabling them to reproduce. Honey bees and wild bees pollinate nearly a third of world crops, and more than 85% of wild plants. Much of the plant biodiversity depends on bees.
Luckily for nature -- and us -- bees are true workaholics. Hundreds of millions of workers out there are doing something they do better than any other species (man included), for free. Bees, which don't do anything but work, only survive for a few weeks. They literally work themselves to death.
Bees are in vital danger
For about ten years, honey bees (Apis mellifera) have been disappearing in many parts of the world. When CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) occurs, entire colonies disappear. They vanish, leaving empty hives behind.
The exact causes of this recent and dramatic phenomenon are yet to be fully understood. Scientific research points toward an expanding list of suspects: large-scale chemical crop treatments (the neonicotinoid family of pesticides in particular); viruses and diseases; parasites such as the Varroa destructor (a "baby vampire" mite); the pre-eminence of monoculture areas, which deprive bees from the pollen diversity they thrive on; the dwindling of preserved habitat areas; last but not least, climate change.
It is most likely such highly synergetic and toxic mix that leads to the disappearance of bees on so huge a scale, with colonies no longer able to cope with a growing collection of stressors. As summarised by Robert Paxton (Head of General Zoology, Martin Luther University, Halle-Wittenberg, Germany), "we need to understand how pathogens interact with other stressors — pesticides and poor nutrition — in ways that harm honeybee populations" (Nature, May 2015). Nearly all colonies in the wild have died out, and without beekeepers to care for them, honeybees could themselves disappear in a matter of years. Between the 1940s and the 2010s, the United States has lost half of its honey bee colonies.
Farmers require bees to pollinate their crops and boost their yields. For instance, the huge Californian almond orchards (which produce 80% of the world's output), are now partly pollinated by honeybees brought all the way from Australia; the ones trucked from all around the United States no longer suffice. This very artificial development is a rising stressor for bee colonies: some bees do not survive such travels, and diseases are spread in the process. The reliance on such methods speaks both to the economic importance of bees and to the increasing difficulty there is in sourcing them.
So real is this economic and environmental phenomenon that in May 2015 the White House published a "National strategy to promote the health of honey bees and other pollinators." According to that document, "Honey bee pollination alone adds more than $15 billion in value to agricultural crops each year (in the United States), and provides the backbone to ensuring our diets are plentiful with fruits, nuts, and vegetables."
In developing countries, beekeeping not only contributes to pollination and higher crop yields, it also helps to generate a supplemental income that often relies on pre-existing basic know-how; it enables more families to stay on their farms. In such context, training and micro-finance are effective levers.
Healthy and delicious hive products
Most people enjoy the taste of honey, the hive's best known product. It is produced by honey bees as a food reserve from the nectar and pollen of plants, to survive the seasons when flowers are no longer in bloom.
Honey bees make many other beneficial products:
Pollen, which bees collect while foraging, is a prized source of proteins and lipids
Propolis, a sort of bee-made glue used to stick together elements in the hive, is a recognised antiseptic
Royal Jelly, the sole nutrition source of the long-living queen, contains many potent nutrients, one of which (10-HDA) is unique in nature
Bee venom is used in the cosmetics industry and for some therapeutic acts
Beeswax, the basic building material of honey combs, has many uses in addition to the ubiquitous candle making
Throughout history, honey and other bee products have been synonymous with wealth, health, and beauty. Not to mention great taste.
A fascinating and sophisticated society
Bees form one of the most sophisticated organisations found in nature. They are sometimes referred to as a "super-organism", given the highly collective nature of their operations.
Honey bees are highly social insects with a caste system and a clear role assigned to each member of the colony:
The queen lays many eggs to replenish the hive; it lives for years as opposed to weeks for other hive dwellers
Mature honey bees venture outside, sometimes miles away, to forage for food; when they identify a worthy source of nectar and pollen, they perform a complex sort of dance upon their return to the hive (the "waggle dance") to inform their peers about the location and nutritional potential of their discovery
Younger working bees take care of the hive: its temperature (flapping their wings when it's too hot), and cleanliness; the well-being of the queen and brood; the build quality of hexagon-shaped combs
Drones (male bees) have for sole purpose to mate the queen, a valiant act they can't survive from. They spend most of their time in the hive, eating. The remaining drones -- by definition unsuccessful -- are expelled from the hive by workers bee at the end of the foraging season, to save on food
Beekeeping has been practiced for millennia. Prehistoric cave paintings of wild honey hunters illustrate pre-beekeeping times. As per Pharaonic Egypt, it highly valued honey making: the honey trade was so important that it was placed under direct state control. Pharaohs were often buried with honey jars.
Intellectuals have also long been fascinated by honey bee colonies, who recurrently contrasted their inner workings with that of human societies. Darwin, for instance, recognised that explaining the evolution of the honey bee’s comb-building abilities was essential for his theory of natural selection; in the 1850s, he carried out his own experiments at his home in Kent. As per Dostoyevsky, he wrote: "Every ant knows the formula of its ant-hill, every bee knows the formula of its beehive. They know it in their own way, not in our way. Only humankind does not know its own formula.”