The humble honey bee. He toils and toils all the day and rarely does he get any street cred. Realistically, he gets stomped on and swatted at more than he gets thanked and revered. But if not for the bee, we would not be eating much of the food we enjoy today. Bees, along with flies, beetles, fruit bats and other beneficial insects that pollinate, are a crucial part of our ecosystem.
Today we joined Dr. Sherie Edenborn for an informational session as well as a field experience to commune with the bees themselves. She gave us a breadth of information and a hands-on activity this previously bee-fearing woman will never forget.
I was incredibly surprised to find out that wasps and yellow jackets (a type of wasp) are NOT BEES. In fact, wasps are carnivorous and often eat the bees themselves. Moreover, there are over 20,000 species of bees and alternative polinators in the world. Over 4,000 are native to the US and there are 400 to 450 species of native bees and alternative pollinators in the state of Pennsylvania alone. Our classes’ qualitative field study in the garden found five different species such as Honey Bees, Sweat Bees, Squash Bees, Bumble Bees, Cuckoo Bees! It was crazy to learn that the honey bee is not even native to the U.S. but originated in Africa, migrated to Europe and came over with European colonization. Wild.
Why are bees important? Two reasons are key: bees are pollinators and indicators. First, bees transfer nectar and pollen between male and female plants for reproduction purposes. Though some plants are self-pollinating, most require the transfer to reproduce. Second, when you have many bees around it is a good indicator that you have a healthy, diverse ecosystem. When the bees are gone there is a BIG problem.
Michael Pollan spoke extensively about the importance of bees in our food cycle in the fascinating movie: Queen Of The Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us? He noted that four out of ten bites you consume is because of work from the honey bee. As Ian Davies was quoted in the same movie, “If we are not protecting them we are not protecting themselves.” These thoughts really hit home as it became apparent that we are so intent on keeping insects out of our home with pesticides that we are hurting the very system that blesses us with our food. Additionally, one of the biggest problems facing bees today is known as “Colony Collapse Disorder” where bees are up and vanishing, leaving the queen and a few bees behind. Some scientists were cited in the movie as believing this may be due to the dawn of genetically modified foods as well as the push to cultivate one industrial crop in an area with no additional crop diversity. This is called monoculture and is proving to be incredibly dangerous to the overall balance in our world.
What are the products of bees good for? Oh my, don’t get me started!
- Honey is an amazing antimicrobial against infections. I have personally found it very effective on cystic acne. Apply for a few hours for a few days or make a yummy face scrub with fine sea salt. Sherie noted it is good to spread on wounds due to its healing properties.
- Wax not only makes nice candles, a hardener in salves and candles but it is quite a nice no-Aspertame chewing gum! The texture reminds me a bit of those old wax lips from the 80’s.
- Propolis, according to Dr. Edenborn, has been shown to be effective against the HIV virus. I would check further studies but this initial finding is quite interesting. The compound clostridium botulinium is anti-viral and immunity-boosting.
- Royal Jelly, the compound used to feed and grow the bee larvae is an anti-inflammatory. Additionally, from my experience in Korea and Eastern Medicine, a known fertility enhancer.
- Build native bee nests. This requires very little work on your part aside from creating a place where native bees who do not produce honey, but pollinate, can rest and reproduce. Many of these bees are solitary so do not often create hives the way the honey bee does. These natives are still VERY important to our ecosystem. Don’t be bee racist.
- Place a honey bee hive in your yard. If you are in the Pittsburgh area “Burgh Bees” can get your started with a fabulous array of classes. Dr. E recommended the online site www.ournativebees.com to interested future beekeeping parties.
- Plant flowers and plants. If this all seems to overwhelming, there is no better way to keep bees around than to plant flora that attract pollinators. Pete, a classmate of mine who is familiar with bees recommended the mallow plant and clovers and goldenrod were highly recommended by Dr. E.