It’s hard to put into perspective just how important bees are to the environment at large. They are a keystone species in the wild, pollinating the vast majority of all fruits, nuts, and vegetables on Earth. Bees are responsible for the reproduction of nearly one-third of all the food that humans consume, making them our greatest agricultural partner. Unfortunately, climate change has begun to take its toll on our pollinators. Hagopian Art’s mural Symbiosis at Emlen Elementary celebrates the bee and hopes to bring awareness to their steep decline as a result of human environmental interference. Bees and other symbiotic partnerships are featured in Symbiosis as a part of Hagopian Arts’ Eco Mural Project, a new initiative that brings these complex ecological wonders to Philadelphia’s small businesses and public places.
Bees are the main pollinators for the majority of our staple foods, and much of the grains and alfalfa that we feed to our livestock. If you’ve ever enjoyed fruits, berries, seeds, coffee, grains, nuts, chocolate, or spices such as nutmeg and peppermint, you have pollinators, and especially bees, to thank! Plants pollinated by bees benefit from greater genetic diversity and resistance to disease. These plants also improve the quality of our soil, air, and water. Without bees, the complex ecosystems that depend on most flowering plants would cease to exist. Bees live on nectar, which is found at the center of all flowers. When bees search for nectar in these flowers, little hairs on their legs and bodies become coated in pollen, which is then delivered to the next flower they reach. Bees turn this nectar into a variety of products that humans find useful, including beeswax, honey, and royal jelly.
The most common domesticated species of bee is the Western Honey Bee, which can be traced back to Neolithic human cultivation. Honey bees live in complex social structures called colonies. Their colonies are built upon a hierarchy of roles: at the top is the Queen, who produces eggs. Several hundred male drone bees that maintain the cleanliness of the hive, circulate air throughout it by vibrating their wings, fertilize eggs, and look after the larvae. The largest social group is made up of thousands of infertile female bees, called worker bees. These are the bees that pollinate flowers and crops, and the ones providing sustenance to the colony. In all, a hive can be home to as many as 80,000 inhabitants, relying on their social roles and communication to sustain them.
Bees owe their high level of productivity to a unique system of communication. Besides the common use of odors and taste that many insects use to convey messages or denote territory, bees have a complex form of communication that resembles dancing, or “waggling”. This behavior has been observed by scientists since the days of Aristotle and is interpreted as an alert to the colony of a successful forage or the direction of new foraging sites. Bees are able to learn, and will not repeat trips to foraging sites that provide weak returns. They possess remarkably complex memories, especially when it comes to navigation and problem-solving. Bees who watch other bees perform complex tasks are much better at replicating those tasks themselves, and recent studies have suggested that bees are able to use tools, such as pulling a string to receive a reward.
The 21st century has seen a staggering loss of these incredibly important pollinators. According to a 2015 study from a UN group called the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), 37% of all bee species had seen a decline due to pesticide use, climate change, habitat loss, and industrial agriculture. A recent report from the Center for Biological Diversity found that in 1,400 North American bee species, nearly 700 were at risk of extinction. Over the past couple of decades, beekeepers the world over have seen massive yearly die-offs of their colonies. It’s natural to lose around 20% of the hive during winter when worker bees expel male drones from the hive to conserve energy and heat. Recently beekeepers have been reporting die-offs of up to 45%, an unsustainable and alarming amount. The struggle of beekeepers is indicative of the suffering of wild bees the world over: Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, is another massive issue facing wild and domesticated bee populations today. Scientists have several hypotheses for why colonies face a sudden loss of worker bees, which include pesticides, viral infections, and parasites, but consensus has not yet been reached.
The EPA has taken action under President Obama towards funding extensive research into the decline of pollinator species, but recent victories in the tightening of regulations on pesticides and improving environmental standards have been lost due to the defunding and deregulation imposed by the Trump Administration. There are many steps that individuals can take to ensure we protect our cherished pollinators: participation in community gardens, planting of native flowers and plants, and voting for representatives that will limit habitat loss and support a robust crackdown on pollinator-killing pesticides.
Citizens who are interested in learning more are encouraged to visit the following organizations and donate to their research and rescue efforts in maintaining wild bee populations worldwide:
The Pollinator Project: http://www.pollinator.org/
The Honeybee Conservancy: https://thehoneybeeconservancy.org/
Greenpeace: Save the Bees: http://sos-bees.org/
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