By Iram Cook-Monie
In celebration of World Honey Bee Day, it’s only fitting to bask in the glow (or rather buzz) of these glorious yet underrated insects.
If you know anything about the importance of honey bees (besides making yummy honey of course) you probably know they are an essential component in modern agriculture. It’s estimated they’re doing around 80% of crop pollination, from cotton to cucumber, and as such are worth $15 billion to USA agriculture.
Their success is due to a few key attributes. Honey bees can detect the best nectar resources and communicate this information to the rest of the hive using what is called a “waggle dance”. When performing the waggle dance a bee will move in a circular pattern, occasionally zig-zagging (or waggling) across the circle. Other forms of movement (or dance) are used for further communication, which can help the colony coordinate to ensure efficient nectar gathering and pollination. Importantly for agriculture honey bees practice flower fidelity, this means they stick to pollinating one type of flower even if they are attracted to others. In addition, they are also able to pollinate non-native plant species (aka ones they haven’t encountered before).
Despite millions of honey bees being used in USA agriculture, their population has dramatically declined by around 40% since the 1970s. The reason? Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). First identified in 2006 the decline due to CCD is like no other fluctuation before as adult worker bees go completely missing from the colony. Scientists have not found an exact cause; it is likely due to a number of stressors including pests, pesticide poisoning and stress from management practices. To make matters worse researchers have found that two common insecticides reduce male’s sperm count… which is not great for maintaining a healthy population.
On the bright side when it comes to American Foulbrood Disease (AFD) honey bees are fighting back marvellously! AFD is caused by a bacterium that infects larvae and spreads via spores infecting and killing entire colonies of bees. Honey bees sometimes exhibit behaviours leading to the uncapping and removal of infected larval cells from the colony to prevent colony death. The behaviour is controlled by two recessive genes, as these genes are recessive the behaviours are only exhibited by individuals who carry two copies of each gene.
The relationship between elephants and bees is one you may not expect. Elephants in Kenya tend to roam free and often destruct farms on their way. This can be devastating for those who rely on these farms for income or food, and of course retaliation against the elephants may result. This is where bees step in! The Elephant and Bees project takes advantage of the fact that elephants are actually afraid of bees. Not only will elephants shake their heads and run away at the sound of bees, but they will also warn other elephants of their presence. The alarm call is raised by stomping on the ground to create seismic vibrations. The elephants who receive the alarm call will then respond as if bees were present. To protect human farms and prevent human-elephant conflict “bee fences” have been created around farms. The fences consist of a series of bee hives connected by wire, if the wire is moved by the elephant the bees will leave their hives to scare them away! This a fantastic example of how humans can have a positive impact on animal populations: increasing the number of bees and protecting elephants from harm by humans.
Interestingly enough, although elephants dislike bees, they actually have some traits in common. Both species live in groups and use the same type of leadership: despotism. Despotism is characterised by a few select members of the group making decisions together based on the high quality information. Elephants communicate decisions via seismic vibrations and bees by their dancing!