Working with honey bees gives you the unique opportunity to look inside a complex system of interactions. Some scientists classify a colony of social insects as a “superorganism.” This is because the members of the colony act with singular purpose. All of the activities of the individual are executed for the benefit of the colony. As you grow familiar with the patterns and activities of the honey bee you begin to see the superorganism, that is the colony, manifest. Sometimes you even hear beekeepers refer to individual hives as “fussy” or “passive.” So, as we work with honey bees, we begin to see the complexity of the hive. As complex as the structure of the colony is, it seems so simple when compared to the colony’s relationship to the ecosystem!
Honey bees are keystone species in their environment. A keystone species is a species that has a disproportionate role in an ecosystem relative to its size in that ecosystem. The removal of a keystone species will create a ripple effect across the system that could destabilize the entire system. Some ecosystems may rely on the synergy of several different keystone species. The name “keystone species” comes from the field of architecture and the structure of an arch. The keystone is the wedge-shaped stone in the top center of the arch. If the keystone is removed, the arch will collapse.
Let’s take a minute and consider the effect that the removal of the honey bee may have on an ecosystem. We all know that honey bees are involved in the process of pollination which is one of the primary ways plants reproduce. Honey bees are responsible for the movement pollen from one flower to another as they gather nectar. Honey bees also exchange pollen with other honey bees back at the hive as they bump into each other. The pollen that is exchanged in the hive often comes from completely different plants. As the bees then return to the foraging area, they distribute this pollen, which can lead to the process of cross-pollination.
Cross-pollination helps to maintain the genetic diversity of the plant community in the ecosystem. In ecology, we refer to this concept as biodiversity. Biodiversity is a key measurement of overall ecosystem health. In other words, a healthy ecosystem will have many different species and a high level of genetic diversity. Likewise, an unhealthy ecosystem will have few species and a low level of genetic diversity. The honey bee is not only responsible for assisting in the process of plant reproduction but also helps to maintain and even increase the genetic diversity of their ecosystem. Honey bees are directly connected to pollination and cross-pollination, but they are also indirectly connected to many other species in their ecosystem.
Most of the time when we take a walk in the woods or around the neighborhood we see trees and plants and simply think of them as trees and plants. However, if we stop for just a moment and think about the trees and plants from the perspective of other species in that ecosystem we quickly see trees and plants as so much more. Take, for example, the perspective of the squirrel or the bird, both see the tree as habitat, a place to make a home. To a squirrel, a tree may represent a neighborhood. If the tree happens to be an Oak tree, that produces acorns, the tree could be seen as a grocery store. Trees and plants provide food, shelter, safety from predators, a refuge from storms, and home building material for so many species. The foliage that falls from trees and plants will decompose and will eventually become nutrient rich soil that supports future generations of trees and plants.
Now think about the same ecosystem without the honey bee. Some plants would not be pollinated which means there would be lower rates of seed production for those plants. As seed production decreases, so too do population numbers for the next growing season. If the overall number of individual trees and plants decrease, the number of homes and the amount of food for so many species also decreases. Birds, insects, lizards, frogs, squirrels, and so many others are all competing for the same homes and food. Certainly some of these individuals will not be able to adapt to the new competitive standard of their shrinking neighborhood. These individuals will become stressed and maybe even die. If we look just a bit closer we will see that even a mammal like a bat would suffer in this scenario. The bat feeds on insects, some of which feed on the soft green leaves of plants. When the plant population declines, some insect populations will also decline and the food resource of the bat could decline as well. If the food resource of the bat declines the bat population will begin to decline as well. This series of events was all kicked off by the removal or loss of the honey bee!
Some scientists predict a 50% loss of plant species as a result of the extinction of the honey bee. It is impossible to project the ripple effect that would result from that level of loss across an ecosystem, but it is easy to say that the overall health of the ecosystem would decline. Around Savannah Bee, we all know that the honey bee makes incredible honey and honeycomb, but we also recognize the honey bee as a keystone species. It is for this reason that we are so inspired by the honey bee and also so concerned about the future of the species. When you purchase pure honey and honeycomb, you are indirectly supporting the health of honey bee populations. Your purchase directly supports a small business beekeeper. The beekeeper is the guardian of the honey bee. The two most important things you can do to help the honey bee survive are to plant flowers in your community and to eat lots of honey. That sounds pretty easy, I mean who doesn’t like flowers and honey? Get started today!
Check out this great short film about the Bee Cause Project!
Submitted By: Brantley Crowder