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Honey bee overview

European Honey bee, Apis mellifera

As the quintessential pollinator of agriculture, honey bees are usually the first that come to mind. Honey bees are generalist pollinators, which means you can find them on a wide variety of flowers. Their favorites tend to be flowering trees and shrubs where they can get the most “bang for their buck” with many flowers in a small space. If you can find groups of blooms, honey bees are probably around!

Honey bees have a complex social structure which allows them to create densely populated colonies. A large hive during peak season can contain more than 60,000 bees! With their large populations and well-established history of domestication, honey bees have landed themselves a hugely important role in modern agriculture.

One might think that the honey they produce is what makes them so valuable, but it’s pollination services that form the bulk of their economic impact here in the United States. With insect pollination contributing over 20 billion dollars to the US economy each year through the increased crop yields they create; farmers eagerly hire commercial beekeepers to bring colonies onto their farms during bloom times. This complex relationship has led to an industry of migratory beekeepers traveling the country from crop to crop in some mind-boggling numbers. The largest pollination event of them all is the almond bloom, with over 2 million hives brought into California by the truckload every February. That’s nearly 75% of all of the managed hives in the country.

While the need for honey bees is clear and proven, it can be more complex than what meets the eye. Many people are surprised to find out that honey bees are not native to North America at all, instead they were imported from Europe in the 1700’s. So, is our reliance on honey bees in agriculture perhaps filling a void left by unsustainable practices that have depleted our native pollinator populations? The consequences of widespread pesticide usage, habitat loss, and climate change have led to alarming declines among many species that suggest it’s likely the case.

While honey bees do face the same stressors, they have the advantage of human intervention on their side. The other thousands of native bee species are left to fend for themselves.

Check out these other cool species you might find in your own backyards!

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