Bumblebee on yellow flower

Why do we need bees?

25 Jul 2017
Bees are vital to a healthy environment and healthy economy. They're also simply beautiful and fascinating little insects. But what makes them so special?

We need bees. We may take them and other pollinators like butterflies and hoverflies for granted - but they are vital for stable, healthy food supplies. They are key to the varied, colourful and nutritious diets we need and have come to expect.

Bees are perfectly adapted to pollinate, helping plants grow, breed and produce food. They do so by transferring pollen between flowering plants and so keep the cycle of life turning.

The vast majority of plants we need for food rely on pollination, especially by bees: from almonds and vanilla and apples to squashes. Bees also pollinate around 80% of wildflowers in Europe, so our countryside would be far less interesting and beautiful without them. 

But bees are in trouble. There is growing public and political concern at bee decline across the world. This decline is caused by a combination of stresses - from loss of their habitat and food sources to exposure to pesticides and the effects of climate change.

More than ever before, we need to recognise the importance of bees to nature and to our lives. And we need to turn that into action to ensure they don't just survive but thrive.

Types of bee

Not all bees are the same. There are over 20,000 known species of bee globally. Around 270 species of bee have been recorded in the UK. Only 1 of these is the famous Honeybee.

Most Honeybees are kept by beekeepers in colonies of managed hives. The rest of our bees are wild, including 25 bumblebee species and more than 220 types of solitary bee.

Like Honeybees, the familiar Bumblebees live in social colonies - usually in holes in the ground or tree cavities.

Solitary bees tend to nest on their own, as the name suggests. Each female builds and provisions her own nest with food. Solitary bees include Mining bees which nest in the ground, as well as Mason bees and Leafcutter bees that nest in holes in dead wood, banks and walls.

We need bees because they're perfect pollinators

Thanks to bees we can enjoy a range of foods from apples and pears to coffee and vanilla. And if you are wearing cotton, that's because the cotton plant your threads came from was pollinated.

"More than 90% of the leading global crop types are visited by bees."

Pollinators, Pollination and Food Production The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)

Bees gather pollen to stock their nests as food for their young. They have special features to collect it - like branched hairs called 'scopae' or combs of bristles called pollen baskets on their legs. As bees visit plants seeking food, pollen catches on their bodies and passes between plants, fertilising them – that's pollination.

Bees are not the world's only pollinators. Flies, wasps, moths, beetles and even some birds, bats and lizards all pollinate, but they only visit flowers enough to feed themselves. Because they gather pollen to stock their nests, bees are generally the most effective pollinators since they visit many more flowers and carry more pollen between them.

Some bee species are also specially developed to pollinate particular plants and without them those plants would be less well-pollinated.

Garden bumblebee sipping teasel

Garden bumblebee sipping teasel © Rory Dimond

Bees are specialists

Many bees have different characteristics that make them suited to pollinate certain plants. For example, the Early bumblebee's small size and agility allow it to enter plants with drooping flowers such as comfrey. Garden bumblebees are better at pollinating the deep flowers of honeysuckle and foxgloves than most other species because their longer tongue can reach deep inside them.

Many farmers rely on a diversity of bees to pollinate their produce. For example, commercial apple growers benefit from the free pollination services of the Red mason bee. This species can be 120 times more efficient at pollinating apple blossoms than honeybees.

There is evidence that natural pollination by the right type of bee improves the quality of the crop - from its nutritional value to its shelf life. For example, bumblebees and solitary bees feed from different parts of strawberry flowers. In combination they produce bigger, juicier and more evenly-shaped strawberries. 

Some bee species have an affinity to particular plants, so need particular natural habitats. For example, in the UK the scabious bee, our largest mining bee, needs the pollen of field scabious or small scabious to provision its young. These plants grow on sandy or chalky open grassland, an important habitat for a variety of bees and wildflowers that is under threat from changing land use. The loss of particular habitats like this is the main driver of bee decline.

Red mason bee on apple blossom

Red mason bee on apple blossom © Sweetaholic/390 Images

Bees are important for more than honey

In a world without bees we would probably survive. But our existence would be more precarious and our diets would be dull, poorer and less nutritious. And not just for want of honey.

Even some plants grown to feed to livestock for meat production, such as clover and alfalfa, depend at least partly on bee pollination.

"Loss of pollinators could lead to lower availability of crops and wild plants that provide essential micro-nutrients for human diets, impacting health and nutritional security and risking increased numbers of people suffering from vitamin A, iron and folate deficiency."

Pollinators, Pollination and Food Production The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)

Governments and food producers talk a lot about food security, yet without bees our food supply would be insecure. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) identified encouraging pollinators - particularly bees - as one of the best sustainable ways to boost food security and support sustainable farming.

All this natural crop pollination fills pockets as well as our bellies. The global market value linked to pollinators is between US$235bn and US$557bn each year. In the UK alone, the services of bees and other pollinators are worth £691m a year, in terms of the value of the crops they pollinate. It would cost the UK at least £1.8bn a year to employ people to do the work of these pollinators, yet bees do it for free.  

Bees are important to a healthy environment

Bees are a fantastic symbol of nature. That they are in trouble is a sign that our natural environment is not in the good shape it should be.

By keeping the cycle of life turning, bees boost the colour and beauty of our countryside. Some 80% of European wildflowers require insect pollination. Many of them such as foxglove, clovers and vetches rely on bees.

Pollinators allow plants to fruit, set seed and breed. This in turn provides food and habitat for a range of other creatures. So the health of our natural ecosystems is fundamentally linked to the health of our bees and other pollinators.

Maintaining our native flora also depends on healthy pollinator populations. This includes wild flowers such as poppies, cornflowers and bluebells, as well as trees and shrubs. The close relationship between pollinators and the plants they pollinate is evident in the parallel declines seen across the UK and Europe: 76% of plants preferred by bumblebees have declined in recent decades, with 71% seeing contractions in their geographical range.

Help SAVE bees tODAY