UNDERSTANDING THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN
BEES AND POLLINATION
You have just started to read a book about how to enter an exciting, multi-billion pound/
dollar, global industry that is not only of vital and strategic interest to governments but
is also one that can offer you a fascinating hobby or career that could make you money
and take you all over the world.
The honey-bee is one of our best known insects, whose relationship with humans can
be traced back to the dawn of humankind when early people ‘stole’ honey from wild bee
nests. Cave paintings in Spain from as long ago as 6000 bc show our ancestors taking
honey from bees, which surely indicates that beekeeping is at least as old as the other
two oldest professions!
By the time humans did come on the scene, the honey-bee had already been around for
about 40–50 million years or more – it had evolved from its hunting-wasp ancestors
and had become a strict vegetarian. Bees and flowering plants then evolved with each
other in a truly remarkable relationship that changed and coloured the world we live in.
This evolutionary symbiotic relationship is probably the most important reason why
our world looks like it does today, and still the vital work of bees goes on. It is a sobering
thought that, if all humans were to be wiped out, the world would probably revert to the
rich, ecologically balanced state that existed some 10,000 years ago. On the other hand,
if bees and other pollinating insects were to be wiped out, humans and other animals
would not last for long.
Bees pollinate plants so that plants can reproduce, and that really is the bottom line.
That is what bees are all about. That is why we need bees and that is why hundreds of
millions of dollars, pounds and euros are spent annually by governments around the
globe in protecting bees, in bee research and in beekeeping subsidies of one type or
Because of their pollinating activities, honey-bees are the most economically important
insects on earth, and certainly the most studied. Honey production is essentially a side
issue. The honey-bee’s role – and thus the beekeeper’s role – in this becomes more
important and valuable by the day as our farming and other practices dramatically
eradicate the habitats of other types of bees and pollinating insects. Some insects can
exist only by eating the pollen of certain plants. If those plants were removed so that
more crops could be planted, bees and other pollinating insects would die out. What,
then, would pollinate our huge areas of mono-crops? The answer would be to truck in
honey-bees by the million.
Pollination can be achieved only by using large numbers of honey-bees. In this way, our
crops and wildflowers are pollinated, and the beekeeper can obtain a pollination fee
and honey for sale. As a reward for pollination, and as an enticement to the bee, most
plants offer food – nectar – in return. The bees take this, alter it through the addition of
enzymes, reduce its moisture content and store it as honey so that they and their colony
may survive winter periods or other periods of dearth. In this way they differ from
wasps, bumble-bees and other types of bee, whose colonies die out on the approach of
winter, with only the newly mated queens hibernating until the spring when they will
start new colonies.
PROFITING FROM A GOLD MINE
Food for free?
If you look at fields full of flowering crops or wild flowers in the countryside, or at
garden and park flowers in the cities, you are not only looking at beauty but also at gold
– thousands of tons of valuable honey. Liquid gold sitting there, all for you! If you don’t.
Bees and the economy
Don’t forget that governments regard the whole set-up as so important that they
are willing to spend millions on ensuring that the status quo does not change and
that nothing happens to harm it. Recent research in the USA has valued crops that
require pollination by honey-bees at an estimated $24 billion annually, and the value of
commercial bee pollination on contracts at around $10 billion annually. These are huge
figures by any standard and they show that bees are big business.
Using bee honey in medicine
Honey sale value, on the other hand, is much less, at $285 million annually in the USA.
However, now that hard clinical trials are showing that certain types of honey can
provide antibiotic wound treatments more effectively and with fewer side-effects than
conventional treatments, this non-pollination side of beekeeping has become a rapidly
growing industry. Active manuka honey has been shown to beat the MRSA super-bug
with no side-effects to the patient and is used in burn dressings. Buckwheat honey
has been found in clinical trials to be more effective as a cough treatment than many
over-the-counter cough medicines. Honey is no longer old Gran’s remedy for colds or
an ‘alternative’ therapy. It is now a mainstream medicine available on national health
systems and used in hospitals in the UK, the USA and other countries.
This part is adapted from A Practical Manual of Beekeeping: How to Keep Bees and Develop Your Full Potential as an Apiarist written by DAVID CAMP.