The amazing behaviour of bees, their importance for the survival of mankind and the bee crisis.

What’s in a name?

When discussing wildlife, the generic term can mask a wealth of biodiversity. Just as the name we give to a species can trivialise its true value within an ecosystem. When we say ‘bee’, it’s usually in reference to the prototypical bee: the honeybee. There are obvious reasons for the honeybees’ flagship status. However the importance of their existence – and consequences of their extinction – go far beyond the sugary substance they’re famed for.  

First of all, we shouldn’t forget that there are around 20,000 species of bees in the world. Besides the 44 different subspecies of honeybee, other families include bumblebees, mining bees, mason bees and carpenter bees to name a few. There’s a clear theme in the common names that we give them: they are workers. Hard-working, well-organised, and productive.

Bee behaviour

Over the years bees have attracted the attention of great thinkers, such as Aristotle, for their complex sociality and collaboration. The most advanced examples are species that live within eusocial colonies, which display remarkable levels of cooperation between reproductive and nonreproductive adults. While this is the case for some species, other bees are solitary in their behaviour. For solitary bees, there is no division of labour. No queens, no drones, no workers. It is down to the female to construct her own nest. But there was another behaviour, this time in honeybees, that even Aristotle struggled to get his head around: the bee dance. It was observed that a honeybee, returning to the hive, would perform a bizarre dance for the rest of the swarm. 

This involves the bee moving in a figure of eight and shaking its tail. First to explain the purpose of what is aptly known as the ‘waggle dance’ was Karl von Frisch. Through a series of ingenious experiments he discovered that the dance was, in fact, a remarkable form of communication. Essentially, the dance enables an individual bee to pass on information about the precise location of a food source to the rest of the hive.

Bees have adapted to use polarised light as a navigating system. They can orientate themselves with the sun, even on a cloudy day. To indicate the direction of a rich food source the bee dances along a specific angle. This corresponds to the angle of the bee’s flight path in relation to the sun. Not only that, but the speed at which the bee shakes its tail during the dance actually tells other bees the distance of the food source from the hive.

The importance of bees

Karl von Frisch, having dedicated his life to the study of bees, said that: “The bee’s life is like a magic well: the more you draw from it, the more it fills with water”. Although this is a fitting tribute to an extraordinarily interesting insect, it fails to express the importance of bees for the survival of our own species. For this, we have the prophetic words of Albert Einstein. “If the bee disappeared from the surface of the globe then man will only have four years of life left”.

So, why are bees so important? Well, bees pollinate one third of what we eat and play a pivotal role in sustaining the Earth’s ecosystem. Without them there would be almost no fruit or vegetables, no crops for livestock to feed on, no tea or coffee and no cotton either. To put a price on it, crop pollination by bees has been estimated to be worth around €170bn. But this is besides the point. There is simply no way of replacing bees and the vital work they do.

The bee crisis

In recent years, bee-keepers and scientists alike have made the same worrying observation. Bees have been dying and it’s not clear why. Research suggests It could be due to a range of factors, from changes in the weather to the invasive varroa mite. Others have linked their decline with the use of genetically modified pesticides and herbicides. The crisis is now beginning to receive media coverage and there are a number of campaigns putting pressure on governments to up their conservation response. What’s certain is that this is a topic none of us can afford to ignore.

For a full account of the crisis, we recommend watching the BBC Documentary – What’s Killing Our Bees. And for an alternative look at this dramatic story, with interviews with bee-keepers around the world, there’s the award-winning documentary, Queen of the Sun.