They might be only 15mm long, but without bees there would be no life on Earth. Not only do bees produce honey for food, medication and well being, they are also essential to sustaining the world’s natural life cycle. As part of their pollen-collecting roles, bees pollinate at least 80% of the crops we rely on for food.
Without bees, these crops – which include most of the fruit and vegetables we eat such as apples, almonds, broccoli and beans, as well as clover for livestock feed – would not produce fruit, which would mean no more food. So what is the critical role bees play in the fruiting of these food crops?
Attracted by the sweet nectar of a flower on the plants of these crops, worker bees crawl around the petals to position themselves perfectly to drink the nectar. As they do, the fur on their bodies picks up a dusting of pollen. And when they fly from flower to flower in search of more nectar, this pollen is transferred from the male part of the flower to the female part, fertilising it. Not long after, the plant’s ovaries swell into fruit.
Bee society is an incredibly complex one, with one colony containing up to 60,000 bees. This is generally made up of one fertile female, known as the queen bee, up to a few thousand fertile male bees, or drones, and tens of thousands of sterile female worker bees.
The colony works as a team, performing specific jobs during their short lives (six weeks in summer, up to eight in winter). Nurse bees care for the young as well as feeding and bathing the queen bee, guard bees protect the hive, and construction bees build the beeswax foundation in which the queen lays her eggs.
Meanwhile, the worker bees visit between 100 to 1,500 flowers in order to fill their ‘honey stomach’ which is emptied into the hive, stored in the comb and ripens into honey.
Male bees serve only one purpose: they mate with the queen to create female worker bees. They do this about a week after being born, and once they’ve mated with the queen, they die! The queen then lays up to 2,000 eggs each day. The unfertilised eggs develop into male drones while the fertilised eggs become female workers or future queen bees.
To collect around a kilo of honey, a bee must travel the equivalent distance of more than twice around the world.