Honeybees: Keystone Species Essential to Agriculture

The secret to vibrant business travel is looking for local treasures. A recent detour for me was a visit to the Worcester (Massachusetts) Art Museum to explore an exhibit called “Kennedy to Kent State: Images of a Generation”. Iconic photographs of Marilyn Monroe, JFK’s assassination, Vietnam protests, and videos of MLK Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the 1969 moon landing triggered abundant memories of my youth. Ambling through the galleries in a nostalgic fog, I became engaged in conversation with a museum employee, which somehow segued into beekeeping. His passionate description intrigued me to dig deeper and, although no honeybee boxes grace my backyard (yet), here are a few details I discovered about these incredible insects.

Workin’ for a Livin’

Humans have raided bees’ nests throughout history to enjoy the benefits of honey, including culinary use, medicinal and cosmetic properties, beeswax, and as a component of wine (mead). Smoking pots and bee paraphernalia discovered in archeological sites indicate that bees and honey were valuable goods in the commerce of ancient Greece, Egypt and China; jars of honey were found in King Tut’s tomb.

Fast forward to the 18th century where the science of microscopy allowed European natural philosophers to understand the finer details of natural phenomena including bee culture. Curiosity and improved scientific tools fueled investigation about the insects’ physiology and colony hierarchy. Inquisitive minds focused on the specialized duties of sterile workers (females) and drones (males). One scientist, known as the father of modern bee science, Francis Huber, is credited with cracking the mystery of how queen bees become fertilized (in the air!). When colonies become crowded, new queens and males are produced and the group swarms to a new site. During the swarm, one of these new queens breaks away to join the mile high club by mating with a number of drones. More of a job than a pleasurable experience, drones suffer the loss of their genitalia in the process, and ultimately death. The now-impregnated queen flies back to the old nest to lay eggs, and although she may eventually leave again to swarm, she never mates again.

Closer understanding of bee colony structure led naturalists to start devising sustainable beekeeping methods rather than the traditional practice of total nest destruction and death of bees to harvest honey. Hive construction (artificial nests) included building frames with parallel bars arranged close enough for bees to attach combs and deposit nectar, pollen, and honey, but with enough distance between for “bee space”, allowing healthy hives to flourish and bees to overwinter.

Fish Gotta Swim, Birds Gotta Fly

Bees gotta pollinate!  Every garden needs pollinators and bees rank right at the top. Without them, the harvest of flowers, fruits and vegetables would be limited. Bees are efficient; one colony can visit 50,000 blossoms in a single day searching for nectar and pollen. Nectar, loaded with sugars, is their main source of energy.  Pollen (aka bee bread) provides a balanced diet of proteins and fats. Communicating food sites is a fascinating aspect of colony behavior. Dances are performed by a worker bee on the return after discovering an abundant site of flowers as means to recruit help from fellow workers.

The late zoologist Karl von Frisch and his University of Munich students identified and named the specific dance movements used by foragers to signal two things to sister bees: distance and direction to a verdant food source. Dance steps indicating the distance to the booty are straight-forward and identified as “round, sickle or waggle runs”.  Directional indications, on the other hand, are according to the sun’s position (not compass directions) so they change with time of day and geographical location. Some skeptical scientists agree that bee communications via dance movements happens, but that floral odors on the forager’s body are the primary source of recruitment. Both camps agree that foragers exhibit specific dances on the surface of the honeycomb to recruit help in gathering pollen and nectar. 

Unfortunately, the process of flower hybridization to enhance traits favorable to commercial flower production (disease resistance, productivity, flower size and color) often results in pollen-less blooms and reduced nectar production, even sterile plants. Traits that improve blooms for commercial use often render them useless to pollinators like bees and butterflies. Still, there are many species that are especially good at attracting pollinators. This list of native and garden plants is a combination of lists from two Portland garden centers and a handout produced by Matthew Shepherd, Pollinator Conservation Program, Xerces Society, April 2004. (See list below)

Honeybees in Trouble

Finally, a few details on colony collapse disorder (CCD). Bee pollination (and lack of it) affects agriculture to the tune of $7 to $16 billion. Beekeepers started noticing CCD as early as 2004, but the dots were not “officially” connected until 2006 when CCD was recognized as more than isolated incidences of bee demise. Colonies normally decrease by 10-15% in a year, but since CCD has been recognized, mortality rates are as high as 33%. Entomologists agree the causes of CCD are multiple. Crop monoculture production methods requires transporting hives to various growing areas and transit stress increases disease susceptibility.

Causes include Varroa destructor, a parasitic mite, several viruses, and a bacterial disease called European foulbrood. Environmentalists point to the use of insecticides containing neonicotinoids as the major culprit. This chemical acts as a systemic in plants and has many applications, depending on the crop: seed treatment, foliar spray or plant drench. Christian Krupke, an entomologist at Purdue University, discovered super-high levels of neonicotinoid in the talc used to keep seed-planting machines running smoothly. During corn seeding, resulting dust covers dandelions and weeds in the area on which bees feed. An online publication with useful information about toxicity and ways to protect bees from pesticides is called “How to Reduce Bee Poisoning from Pesticides” 


Honeybees are not only fascinating insects, their role in food production is unparalleled. Habitat loss, pesticide use, ubiquitous monoculture, and diseases all contribute to declining numbers, but nationwide efforts are in place to reverse waning populations. Hives are located in unconventional locations across the country. Minnesota, for example, has hives on the green roof of the Minneapolis City Hall, tucked between the honeysuckle and prairie flowers.  Bob Redmond, a Washington State beekeeper, recently received permission to raise genetically healthy bees in the meadows around Sea-Tac airport. Planting diversity is one of the most critical steps to sustaining healthy honeybee colonies because it forces bees to move miles foraging rather than acres in their search of pollen. Backyard habitat certification programs and community gardens help revive healthy colonies and develop an awareness of the importance of pollinators, but CCD is still occurring, with the onus pointing to the use of pesticides containing neonictinoids.

Europe has banned pesticides with chemicals that are suspect. Euro pesticide policy is “guilty until proven innocent”. Our federal government takes the opposite approach. Congress is waiting to see the effect of the Euro ban before risking the wrath (and financial support) of the powerful chemical industry. Until then, sprays with neonicotinoids as the active ingredient are allowed regardless that they are the number one suspect killing our hardworking, six-legged, unpaid farmworkers.

Pollen and Nectar Sources
• Aster
     (annual and perennial varieties)
• Basil Ocimum
• Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia)
• Caltrop (Kallstroemia)
• Cornflower
 Centaurea (cyanus, C. imperialis)
• Creosote bush (Larrea)
• Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster)
• Currant (Ribes)
• Elder (Sambucus)
• English lavender (Lavandula)
• Giant hyssop (Agastache)
• Globe thistle (Echinops)
• Goldenrod (Solidago)
• Huckleberry (Vaccinium)
• Hyssop (Hyssopus)
• Joe-pye weed (Eupatorium)
• Lupine (Lupinus)
• Marjoram (Origanum)
• Mint (Mentha)
• Oregon grape (Berberis)
• Penstemon (Penstemon)
• Poppy (Papaver)
• Purple coneflower (Echinacea)
• Rabbit-brush (Chrysothamnus)
• Rhododendron (Rhododendron)
• Rosemary (Rosmarinus)
• Sage (Salvia)
• Scorpion-weed (Phacelia)
• Snowberry (Symphoricarpos)
• Stonecrop (Sedum)
• Sunflower (Helianthus)
• Thyme (Thymus)
• Wallflower (Erysimum)
• Wild buckwheat (Eriogonum)
• Wild lilac (Ceanothus)
• Willow (Salix)
• Zinnia (Zinnia)

Gay Smith

Technical Consulting Manager

Gay Smith is the Technical Consulting Manager for Chrysal USA. Contact her at [email protected]