Background for Teachers

Cover-What's the BuzzzzWhat's the Buzzzzz?
TPW Magazine, April 2009

Bees are a keystone species, that is, as important to the ecology of an area as the keystone in an arch, without which the arch would fall. The focus of this month's issue, honey bees, illustrates the role of bees in pollination and mentions the unsolved mystery of Colony Collapse Disorder.

Bees produce honey and beeswax, but their most important role is pollination. Pollination allows plants to develop seeds and fruits, essential for the plants to propagate and grow fruit. Some plants self-pollinate but many plants rely on bees, butterflies and other insects, birds, bats or wind to transfer pollen from flower to flower. By using an outside source to transfer pollen among different plants, these plants will have greater genetic diversity. The US Forest Service has a nice illustration on these two types of pollination on their web site How Pollination Works (USFS).

Bees pollinate about 30% of our food sources, for example, apples, tomatoes, broccoli, sunflowers, strawberries, nuts, onions, and peppers to name just a few. This USDA web site lists 130 crops pollinated by bees (USDA). Bees are the most economical way to pollinate large croplands, and commercial beekeepers hire out their domesticated bees (used to living in manufactured hives) to be trucked to farmers for pollinating a crop. When they are done, the hives are trucked to another farmer.


The Life Of Bees

Facts from Texas A&M Department of Entomology's Honey Bee Information Site (TAMU):

  • Bees have 5 eyes.
  • Bees fly about 20 mph.
  • Bees are insects, so they have 6 legs.
  • Male bees in the hive are called drones.
  • Female bees in the hive (except the queen) are called worker bees.
  • Losing its stinger will cause a bee to die.
  • Bees have been here around 30 million years!
  • Bees carry pollen on their hind legs called a pollen basket or corbicula.
  • An average beehive can hold around 50,000 bees.
  • Foragers must collect nectar from about 2 million flowers to make 1 pound of honey.
  • The average forager makes about 1/12 th of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.
  • Average per capita honey consumption in the US is 1.3 pounds.
  • Bees have 2 pairs of wings.
  • The principal form of communication among honey bees is through chemicals called pheromones.
  • Bees are important because they pollinate approximately 130 agricultural crops in the US including fruit, fiber, nut, and vegetable crops. Bee pollination adds approximately $14 billion annually to improved crop yield and quality.

Honey bees are social and have specific roles in the colony. A queen only mates and lays eggs. Drones are males, and only live to mate with the queen. Worker bees, all females, have many roles. Just after birth, they help tend the honeycomb by mending the honey comb and cleaning. As they develop, some help feed the queen or drones. Some produce wax used for building the honeycomb. Others fan the hive to help evaporate water. Some worker bees guard the hive. Others are scouts that locate nectar sources and communicate back through their "dance." Mature forager bees go out to collect the nectar, which is brought back to the hive, shared with honey-making bees that use a special honey stomach to create honey and jelly to feed the colony. You may want to show your students this video overview on Incredible Insects: Bees at Work (How Stuff Works)


The Origins of Honey Bees

Honey bees are imports from Europe, but we also have native bees and wasps. There is evidence of types of bees during the Cretaceous period, about the same time flowering plants appeared. Regardless of their origins, all bees and wasps play a role in pollination and in Texas' fascinating ecosystem. You can read more about European and Africanized bees (TAMU).


Colony Collapse Disorder

Scientists are researching the decline of honey bee colonies. Mites, pesticides and stress from transporting hives are some of the possible causes being cited. If honey bee colonies continue to collapse without relief, the impact on our current food sources and agricultural practices will be great. To learn more, read What's Killing the Honey Bees? (Penn State University), watch Nature - The Silence of the Bees (PBS) or read Colony Collapse Disorder News (USDA)


Additional Information:

  • The Trouble With Bees TPW magazine, March 2003... “It’s clear that without the bees, the plant kingdom would go away. There are other pollinators, but bees are the dominant ones.”
  • Nova - Tales from the Hive: 
Anatomy of a hive 
Fascinating Facts  
  • Airborne Pollen, The Young Naturalist. Learn more about the nature and shape of pollen, making it prime for transport. Interesting pictures, too.