Bees are unique in several ways. In their anatomy, they are like their carnivorous wasp ancestors, but in their biology, they have evolved into something completely different. Most honeybees do not have hardened mandibles (mouthparts) for chewing flesh. They sip nectar from flowers using a particular proboscis. Bees are not parasitic within other animals like some wasp larvae, but some are social parasites, rather like cuckoos.
Honeybees focus their diet on pollen and nectar and play a pivotal role in the pollination of numerous species of flowering plants. Furthermore, from a human perspective, what really makes bees unique is their significant agricultural, economic, and scientific importance.
Bees are amazingly effective pollinators, in part because of their sheer numbers. Honeybee colonies have tens of thousands of individuals perhaps up to eighty thousand per colony. It only takes one bee to visit, for example, one almond flower, and then a second almond flower, to make an almond. And there are well over a million honeybee hives in the handful of Californian counties that produce almonds for the entire United States and regions beyond.
Furthermore, multiply these numbers by the over 135 crops that bees pollinate worldwide, and then factor in all the countries around the world growing fruits and vegetables. Therefore, you will start to get a sense of the vital importance of bees to agriculture. These figures also demonstrate how massively effective bees are in driving our current agricultural practices. However, it is not just honeybees that are vital to our agriculture; many other types of bees are terrific pollinators too, including bumblebees, mason bees, and squash bees among others.
In the USA, honeybees are estimated to contribute over $20 billion annually to the economy. However, the honeybee population has been declining severely since the 1980s. The main reason due to the onset of new diseases and pests, pesticides, and habitat loss. Hence, this decline has coincided with an increase in agricultural demand.
The result has been a significant rise in the price of food, especially in the case of almonds, which up to now have relied entirely on honeybees for pollination. The blue orchard bee (Osmia lignaria) has recently been introduced as a pollinator in commercial almond orchards, and other bee species are being studied as possible pollinators for this crop.
Moreover, the bumblebees, are too used for crop pollination and make a key contribution to the global economy. In China, a shortage of bees means that human laborers now pollinate some crops by hand. And even in the United States, some farmers are turning to human hands equipped with pollination wands and swabs a technique already used on at least one urban farm in Boston to guarantee crop yields.
The research value of honeybees is massive, and not only for their contributions in the field of agriculture. Even though honeybees can be trained, and the blue orchard bee is a focus of research to train the bees to a target fruit blossom scent for increased pollination efficiency.
Given that the life span of a worker bee is typically a few weeks to a few months, bees are also used in research relating to age-related disorders such as Dementia, Alzheimer’s disease (Memory loss), studying relationships between aging, memory, and behavior. Honeybees also act as research subjects in the study of epidemiology, conservation, communication, sociology, genetics, chemical ecology, and many more subjects.