Wildly Successful: The Honey Bee

Wildly Successful: The Honey Bee

I was not born with a green thumb. I am however married to an extraordinary woman who convinced me to plant hydrangea…as even I could master that horticultural feat. We’re so glad I did. Not only are the plants beautiful, but one in particular, has given us so much in return. Hydrangea paniculata is a biologist’s dream, with it’s blooming flowers providing nectar for dozens of pollinator species including: wasps, hummingbird moths, hummingbirds and bees. The diversity of bees alone is impressive: Mason Bees, Bumble Bees, Carpenter Bees, Sweat Bees and the most well known of all, Honey Bees, all come to feed.

The Honey Bee, Apis mellifera, also known as the European Honey Bee, is one of the world’s most recognizable creatures. While Honey Bees lived in North America as long as 14 million years ago (we know this from fossilized Honey Bees), the Honey Bees which range throughout all of North America today are descendents of the first European hives brought over by colonists in 1622.

With more than 20,000 known bee species on the planet and more than 4,000 native to North America alone, the Honey Bee is the most well-known and for good reason–they produce a super food and its name is synonymous with all things good. Honey is a food created by bees, for bees. It is a sweet, viscous high-energy food derived from regurgitated nectar which is fed to young bees and other members of the colony or hive. Too good not to share, honey has wound up on the menu of many creatures including us humans and the occasional lucky bear. Yet taste alone is not the only virtue of this liquid gold.

Long esteemed for its medicinal attributes, honey has recently received scientific support for its valued traits–among them: potent antibacterial, antioxidant and antifungal properties. In fact, sealed ceramic jars of honey have been unearthed on archaeological digs in western Asia after more than 5,500 years. Incredibly, the honey within was not only free of bacteria and mold but also still palatable! The benefits of the world’s original natural sweetener don’t just end there. Manuka, Australia’s and New Zealand’s unrivaled super-honey is not only lauded for its flavor, it is also renowned for its efficacy in: fighting infection, reducing inflammation, healing wounds, regenerating tissue, reducing scars, combating indigestion and healing stomach ulcers. All of this goodness, from a common insect.

Yet the once common Honey Bee is no longer so commonplace. A host of environmental assaults have hit the bees especially hard: pesticide usage, shifting

climatic trends, habitat loss and fragmentation, invasive plants and bees and introduced diseases have all led to decline in Honey Bee populations.

Some would point out that the species is introduced and ask the inevitable question: why should we care? Such a hard-hitting question warrants a non-sweetened answer. Honey Bees are more than just fuzzy, cute little insects which produce honey. They pollinate hundreds of species of plants including flower, fruit and vegetable crops, increasing yields and contributing more than 25 billion dollars to the U.S. agricultural industry each year! On the surface this sounds impressive but when we break it down further, these buzzing little insects become downright indispensable. Due to their diligence–being as busy as bees–these insects are responsible for pollinating 90% or more of our staple crops. A sliver of their pollination pie includes: apples, broccoli, cauliflower, blueberries, cherries, strawberries, raspberries, cranberries, peaches, pears, watermelons, lemons, limes, avocados, almonds, cashews, macadamia nuts, onions, peppers and pumpkin. In short, without Honey Bees, we couldn’t be “as American as apple pie”…and what kind of a holiday would Thanksgiving be without cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie? Lastly, while Honey Bees are most reluctant to employ their venom, treatments for various forms of arthritis and cancer have been developed from it, which have both improved and prolonged lives.

With such contributions to our planet and our species, what can we do to help Honey Bees? There are numerous, simple things virtually all landowners–public and private, as well as schools and corporations, can do to “bee” champions for our golden benefactors. We can plant bee-friendly herbs, vegetables and flowers. Native plants are the best choice. Pollinator gardens such as those on the properties of The Greenwich Land Trust, The Bruce Museum, The New Canaan Land Trust and Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo, offer vital oases for these essential pollinators. Leave water out near your gardens and plantings–a bird bath or ceramic bowl will do. Never use pesticides. Instead, opt for natural pesticidal plants such as garlic, which will not harm bees.

Honey Bees are nature’s marvels and nature clearly knows what to do. Frequently, we just have to give her a little assistance. By performing these simple habitat enhancements, you can give bees a chance to do what they do best–make our planet a biologically richer, healthier, and yes, tastier place.